​Indian football a slumbering giant

The size of the task facing Dutchman Piet Hubers when he agreed to help develop grass-roots football in India quickly became apparent with one simple comparison.

Hubers discovered there are more full-sized pitches in his hometown of Wijchen, which has a population of about 40 000, than in the whole of Mumbai, which has more than 20‑million inhabitants.

“That makes it very challenging,” he said during an interview at the International Sports Convention in Geneva.

Iceland, who reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, are a good guide to what can be achieved. “I use Iceland very much as an example,” said Hubers. “They invested a lot of money in facilities, in halls, in artificial pitches but also in coaches.

“It’s mandatory that every coach is qualified, otherwise you can’t even coach a youth team and that, in my opinion, is one of the basics of the success of Icelandic football.”

Cricket-loving India is a sleeping giant as far as football is concerned. The national side are 137th in the world rankings and on the only occasion they qualified for the World Cup, in 1950, they pulled out without kicking a ball.

But the country of 1.3‑billion is waking up to the most popular sport on the planet.

The Indian Super League (ISL) is in its third season and Kushal Das, secretary general of the All India Football Federation, has said the country is aiming to qualify for the 2026 World Cup.

Hubers, a former defender for top-flight Dutch club NEC Nijmegen, believes that developing the sport at grass-roots level is fundamental to India’s plans. “The more players you get into the system, the better the quality will be at the top,” he said.

The ISL, promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Rupert Murdoch’s Star India TV, have their own grass-roots programme of which Hubers is technical director.

The most talented players are selected for a programme known as Young Champs. Started in 2014, the scheme’s first target is to give 500 000 children between the ages of six and 14 the chance to play football and get coaching.

Hubers said finding spaces to play was one of the major challenges in India’s teeming cities and that children needed to play regularly.

“One training session every week and a grass-roots match every week for 20 weeks a season is the absolute minimum, but that is also the biggest challenge because you need good facilities, you need a playing system, you need good coaches, you must organise teams — and that is not so easy,” he said.

Improvisation is often the key and the concept of pop-up pitches, where organisers bring portable goals and announce venues on social media, has become popular.

Officials have also attempted to persuade private clubs and schools to make their facilities available.

Coaching is another key element. “The most important thing for the ISL clubs is to educate the coaches … so that parents can be confident their children are improving,” added Hubers.

He said it can take 10 years of investment in grass-roots football to pay off at international level and believes India’s goal of reaching the 2026 World Cup is achievable.

“You always must set targets … and that’s just a target, not an obligation although it is certainly high on our wish list,” he explained. — Reuters

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