I-League still developing football in India


Indian clubs can't match the sums of money that have recently taken Didier Drogba to Shanghai and Alessandro Del Piero to Sydney, or the cashed-up domestic cricket teams that have the biggest stars in their sport flocking to the subcontinent.

What they do have is a vast population of potential fans, a globally popular game and a burgeoning domestic league.

For the sixth season of the country's professional league, champion Dempo has recruited former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Rohan Ricketts; Prayag United signed Carlos Hernandez, the player of the 2009-10 season in Australia's A-League and a member of Costa Rica's 2006 World Cup team; and second-tier club Dodsal FC has been linked to former Manchester United and Arsenal star Mikael Silvestre.

Imported players are still crucial to the development of the sport in a country of 1 billion-plus people. Over the years, the All India Football Federation has relied on government funding - and even handouts from the Board of Control for Cricket in India - to sustain a professional domestic competition.

Africans, especially Nigerians, still make up the majority of imports in the I-League and there are always a smattering of Brazilians but as well as Ricketts and Hernandez, this season there are players from, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Lebanon, Philippines, North Korea and Afghanistan in the league.

I-League CEO Sunardo Dhar believes that this is a step in the right direction as football strives to prosper in a country virtually obsessed with cricket.

"These are big players and big signings and it is a good thing for India," Dhar told The Associated Press. "Any positive news is obviously good. The money that Indian players receive is obviously good and so it is not a big surprise that good players from overseas are coming in and playing. Carlos Hernandez refused three A-League clubs in Australia to come to India."

For Dhar, it is not just about trying to sign players who can excite the growing number of middle-class fans in the country; it is about laying the foundations for long-term growth, just as the Japan Football Association did two decades ago with its domestic competition.

"In Asia, we look up to the J-League and they started the league with big stars such as Zico and Gary Lineker and these improved the standards, promoted the game and became coaches and ambassadors," he said. "In India, such experience and expertise is important."

High-profile clubs and players pull massive crowds in India during brief visits and friendly matches. Diego Maradona visited Calcutta earlier this month and was greeted by thousands of fans when he helped lay down a foundation stone for the Indian Football School, which is being set up to train young talents and help spread the sport at a grass-roots level. The 1986 World Cup star watched an exhibition match with Indian players and wrapped up his two-day visit by attending a clinic for young players organized by Indian club Mohun Bagan.

"You have to give a lot of attention and affection to the players and the game for it to grow," Maradona told the Indian media. "India still has a long way to go. However, I wish all the best to Indian football."

While the Argentine football great is a recognizable figure around the world, his standing in India is nothing like that of the legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.

The I-League season kicked off in October, with the immediate challenge for football officials being how to grab attention when Tendulkar is playing for India in a cricket test series against England in November.

As an ex- Premier League player, Ricketts, who left Tottenham in 2005 to play in leagues around the world, has the highest profile of the foreign contingent. According to the former England youth international, still settling into life in India, it is not always easy to make a difference.

"I am trying to help," Ricketts told AP. "Some people are open to learning, such as those who have played for the national team under a foreign coach and have played the game overseas and seen a different way. The players that have never left the country are more limited in their outlook.

"There is potential. Cricket is No. 1, but the kids, the next generation, now find Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo more appealing than crickets stars such as Sachin Tendulkar," he said. "That generation is starting to play more and follow the game."

Ricketts said with a population exceeding 1 billion, things were bound to change, but added: "There is money here but no infrastructure."

"The academies are very important and there needs to be good coaches and there need to be good coaching courses," he said. "Improving the coaching is key and it has to come from the top."

By the end of 2012 a third regional youth academy will open at Bangalore, following existing facilities in Mumbai and Calcutta. Four more will be in place by the start of 2014, along with one national elite academy.

In addition, one team in the top tier of the I-League is reserved for U-23 players who are given regular playing time at a competitive level and coached by a staff which specializes in training up-and-coming players.

"The clubs have become more professional and are investing in youth development and we have seen players coming through the ranks to graduate to the national team too," Dhar said. "The league should contribute to the national team and that has started to happen at junior levels over the last few months and that is a good sign. In five years, we hope that the league will have strengthened the national team. The academies will also make a difference."

Australian Scott O'Donell is overseeing that new academy system. As a former national team coach of Cambodia, he understands the issues that developing football countries face when it comes to trying to build for success.

"I think most people would agree that youth development has been somewhat neglected here," O'Donell said. "I would like to see all I-League clubs have their own system in place, so they will be less reliant on buying players from other clubs and more focused on developing their own players, which will save them money in the long term."

In the short-term, foreign players can make a difference.

"High-profile foreign players can have a positive impact on the younger local players as long as they come here with the right attitude," O'Donell said. "All foreign players playing in the I-League have a responsibility to help the local players become better players by showing them what it means to be a professional, what to eat, drink, when to eat and when to sleep."

Copyright 2016 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

Biggest Stories



Most Popular