Exclusive: India's young players now among Asia's best, says Praful Patel

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Praful Patel with Fifa president Gianni Infantino. (Supplied photo)
Praful Patel with Fifa president Gianni Infantino. (Supplied photo)

Dubai - The All India Football Federation president hopes India's investment in youth football will make the country a formidable force


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Published: Thu 24 Jun 2021, 11:20 PM

Indian football recently made global headlines when Sunil Chhetri, the national team’s talismanic striker, briefly became the second-highest goalscorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo among active players.

While the 36-year-old Chhetri continues to be an inspirational figure for his individual exploits, the sport itself in cricket-obsessed India is showing signs of improvement..

The Chhetri-led Indian team’s counter-attacking skills at the 2019 Asian Cup even caught the eye of the then UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni.

The Blue Tigers are now on track to qualify for the second straight Asian Cup in 2023.

But Praful Patel, president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), says the country is making long-term investments in youth football with the aim of making India a formidable force at the highest level.

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, Patel also explains how the success of the Indian Super League (ISL), football’s version of the Indian Premier League (IPL), has reinvigorated the sport, inspiring kids across the country to play football.

Q. While the BCCI failed to complete the IPL safely, the football federation successfully hosted the I League and the ISL despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. How important an achievement is that for the AIFF?

The All India Football Federation takes extreme pride in leading and bringing back live sporting action in India after the pandemic in October 2020. It kicked off with the Hero I-League Qualifiers and was followed by the Hero I-League, and the Hero ISL. All of them were held under the unbreachable bio-bubble.

We understand that the safety of the players and the officials concerned are of paramount importance and at no time can there be any compromises. The fact that we were able to sustain the bubble for over four months at a stretch while dealing with various stakeholders speaks about AIFF’s organisational structure, and it has already become a role model and a case study.

To back it up, the Asian Football Confederation trusted us with the AFC Champions League Group E matches in Goa which had some very high-profile teams like Persepolis FC (Iran), Al Rayyan SC (Qatar) and Al Wahda (UAE), and the matches finished without any hiccups. Moving ahead, this makes us confident about our abilities to pull off any sporting event. We take pride in that.

Q. After the emergence of the ISL, what are the areas the federation needs to work on to keep the I League standards high?

Football in India is pan-India at the moment — it’s no more confined to the pockets. In the Hero I-League, you have teams from Kashmir to Kerala to Chennai to Aizawl to Goa to Punjab to Bengal to Manipur to Delhi besides the Indian Arrows. When was the I-League so diverse? The sociological revolution which Indian football has brought in Kashmir and Aizawl has been immense.

Speaking about standards, the boys who have been outperforming others in the Hero I-League today are the stars of tomorrow in the Hero ISL, and eventually the national team. The federation has long been urging the respective clubs to follow and invest in their youth development model to increase the pipeline. Investing in the youth is a non-stop profit earner as you get to spread your wards all over. You need to look at the Indian Arrows to understand the magic that a youth development project can bring to a developing footballing nation.

Q. What kind of changes has the ISL brought to the game in India?

A lot! The game has reached every nook and corner of the country with Indian football being live on prime time television. That has generated huge interest among the masses and drawn new fans to watch and follow Indian football.

The development of infrastructure is another aspect that has changed the paradigm of hosting mega football events in the country. India is now a go-to destination for Fifa and AFC, and all of that couldn’t ever be possible with the snazzy infrastructure which is an integral part of Indian football nowadays. You also need to look at the quality of the playing turfs all over. It’s soft and lush.

You also need to look at the corporate interest which the Hero ISL has generated. The AIFF has gauged this interest over Indian football for long, and now there are so many big corporate houses who are an integral part of the Indian football family.

Q. The World Cup will have 48 teams from 2026. Countries like Vietnam have already made plans and invested heavily, keeping an eye on the World Cup as Asia will have eight slots from 2026 onwards. When do you think India can realistically have a chance at getting into the World Cup if we plan for it now?

The Indian U-16 national team was 90 minutes away in the AFC U-16 Championship finals in Malaysia (2018) from qualifying for the Fifa U-17 World Cup, wherein we went down narrowly 0-1 to powerhouse Korea Republic. We aimed higher, and the next year, we again qualified for the finals in Uzbekistan from a group that had Uzbekistan, a powerhouse in youth football in Asia. The quality in the side was better and we were confident of making it to the semifinals which would have earned us a ticket to the U-17 World Cup but with the pandemic striking, the finals in Bahrain were eventually cancelled.

The AIFF has, thus, been churning out a generation, and providing them with maximum international exposure for them to have a basic understanding from the U-15 level. These youth players have no fear, and with the best exposure provided, they are almost at par with the best in Asia at that level. Add the U-17 World Cup team to this – in another 4-5 years, an entirely technically equipped team will be taking over the mantle of the national team.

Imagine if such programmes are also run simultaneously by all other stakeholders and clubs. That will enable a bigger pipeline, all to take Indian football forward together.

The AIFF-run Golden Baby Leagues presented us over 30,000 matches till the pandemic struck. It is providing a platform for all boys and girls from 4-12 to play competitive football, while falling in love with the ‘beautiful game.’

We have also put in a plan for the women’s team to qualify for the 2027 World Cup, the seeds of which have already been implemented.

Q. The northeast region seems to have a lot of talent. Has there been any plan to focus more on that area to unearth and nurture those talents?

Football today in India is pan-India. It’s a generic trend to look at the northeast, as that region has served Indian football for decades, and is still churning out new talents. But if you look around, it’s not just the northeast alone. Punjab, Kerala, Bengal, Goa have notable representations, and even places like Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh also are contributing players.

The All India Football Federation values the contribution and support of the State Associations, and urges them and all the clubs to look at taking the sport to the grassroots as per the AIFF model.

Q. India have successfully hosted the under 17 World Cup. Now you are bidding for the 2027 Asian Cup in India. How confident are you to earn the right to host the event?

After having organised the most viewed Fifa youth tournament in 2017 in the form of the Fifa U-17 World Cup, we stay confident of organising an equally successful AFC Women’s Asian Cup in January 2022 and the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup in October 2022. The venue for 2027 AFC Asian Cup will be finalised by the AFC and if we are granted the hosting rights for the same, it will be the most followed, viewed and successful AFC Asian Cup ever.

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