For the Blue Tigers the road to North America is set to be a long one but the desire to stay on its course could see them reach the promised land.
The 68th FIFA Congress convened in Moscow on 13th June, designated the US, Canada and Mexico as the hosts of football’s most prestigious tournament, which by then will be played with 48 teams. The increase in the number of sides will linger on the minds of countries that have been vying to punch above their weight, and to make it to the biggest spectacle in the world.
Concentrating the slots down, the Asian Football Federation will reportedly be awarded eight spots, a rise from the 4.5 it has had for some time now. The 48-team entourage will be broken down into 16 groups of three, with two teams qualifying from each group to a Round of 32, bringing back normality.
With this move, FIFA have attempted to garner more viewers, more TV rights and penetrate into diverse markets and opportunities. From a footballing point of view, the quality may go down a little, but there’s much to gain.
Coming to India, the Blue Tigers and the bosses at the helm can only feel so much better, with a faint light of hope to make it to the stage where the sensibilities of fans go out the window. Are we even close to making the flight in 2026? Let’s take a realistic look at facts, the current scenario, and enlist feasible solutions for the same.
THE CURRENT SCENARIO
India qualified for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 comfortably, with some smart management from Englishman Stephen Constantine and sublime goalscoring from talisman Sunil Chhetri. The nation, though, knows that it still has a lot to do and it should begin overnight if we’re to have the slightest chance of making it to the ‘Big 48.’
Currently, standing at 97 and on the verge of breaking into the top-10 in Asia, it might sound like a little more push should be enough to make the dream come true. On the contrary, the scene is far from right. India have been criticised internally for their playing style that barely save grace, while Chinese Taipei head coach Gary White recently made remarks that didn’t go down too well with the Indian fan-base.
“His (Sunil Chhetri) hat-trick is his hat-trick, fair play to him, but the reality is you got to see what are you going against, with the senior players it would have been difficult. He would not have got that space.” White continued, saying, “I’m not sure if you can go bragging about beating a U-23 side and U-19 players. Let’s play with the senior team then let’s see the difference.”
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This might sound cringe-worthy, but India’s victory at the Intercontinental Cup boils down to White’s words. Let’s move on to the sub-heads, their details and how they need to be changed for the development of Indian football.
The grassroots programme and youth development
In an exclusive published by Khel Now last year, we revealed why Germany have turned into one of the most dominant forces in international football. India need to replicate 10% of that to ensure the same. Clubs are gradually taking up programmes, but a lot of young academies and clubs that prioritized youth development shut shop due to the lack of funds.
With the Indian Super League getting water-tight contracts into the system, a glimmer of hope has finally met the wanderer. The grassroots, still, urge for more investment and patience. A side featuring 12-year-old talents will not give you massive benefits until they turn 18. Till then, work on them. Send them to tournaments, groom them right, help them with the right education and physicality and the ‘process of evolution’ will certainly prevail.
One-off campaigns like the ‘Mission XI Million’ (for promoting the U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017) aren’t going to change the scenario much. Structures like the DSK Academy (barring the current fiasco), the Bengaluru FC system, and the Minerva Academy look to be on the right track, but are too meagre in number to make a mark. India needs to have one such institution in each state first, and then, in each local football hub.
An average cricket or tennis kit costs ₹10000 and if spent over a period of time on boots and physical development, the same amount can have similar paybacks sportingly, at the footballing scene.
The teams need to play a pan-India competition every year, preferably funded by the AIFF/Govt/a consortium that works on the development of grassroots. The winners need to be sent out to International tournaments, training academies and need to be helped with facilities at par with Europe’s best.
The 2026 extravaganza will be spread across an astonishing 16 cities
India needs to create a parallel system for poor players who lose out along the way or join the Army after failing to make a mark (Yes, that’s a regular reality). These kids need the confidence, the structure, and the right sort of exposure that would help them grow into footballers at par with players all around the world.
Their physical evolution, too, should be looked upon. Talented Indian players, without naming them, have lost out at the senior level due to frail transitions from the youth to senior scene. That is a concern that needs to be looked at. Too much muscle and weight training could be a reason, but doctors are the best to answer this question. They need to have agility, height, speed and technique and all four make you an average player, unless, you’re a Lionel Messi or an Andres Iniesta.
The dual league system
This issue has to be resolved as soon as possible, or else, India will face another incinerate football dream, until it restarts. The Asian Football Confederation has put in the suggestions and until and unless the AIFF takes a final call, the dual league system involving the I-league and ISL looks set to continue.
Monetary issues like admission fees to a specific league notwithstanding, the Federation needs to change what looks like a stuck-up situation. It was announced at an AIFF meeting that this is just a one-season move, but looking at the current scenario, the I-league and the ISL look set to continue parallelly.
India needs a single league, subtracting the fallback option for players. If you’re not good enough, you don’t play a second league, you play the second division and it’s got to be as simple as that. Indian football needs clarity and may fall off the AFC radar if it fails to find the solution to this locus.
Hitting the mark at the continental level
No, we don’t just mean this for the national side. Indian clubs, too, need to make it to the latter stages of the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League, if they get there. It’s a gradual process. Bengaluru FC are showing the way and Dempo, erstwhile Pune FC and Churchill Brothers also made some noises in the last decade.
Other than the Garden City club, India needs to find its second voice at the continental level. Without the right system that stares Indian clubs in the face (except Bengaluru), it is not possible for any side to continuously reach the higher rungs of the tournament. That proves why changes are necessary to bring about the right results, not only nationally, but also continentally.
The AIFF is targeting qualification for the 2026 event
On the international stage, Constantine’s smartly devised strategy of eking out 1-0 victories may have helped India to reach the continental showpiece for 2019, but will not hold for long. Indeed, a lot of bets are already being placed on India’s early exit from the tournament. This, certainly, needs to change. The system is synonymous with the boss at the helm and while he’s preparing the team for the Asian Cup, negatives should not be dwelled upon, too much.
The attitude of Asian nations to participate against and welcome India for friendlies will only change once our clubs compete with theirs regularly and that is important. As Chhetri recently suggested, India needs to make its mark at the AFC first and only then should they look to make the long walk.
The nation’s attitude towards the game
Amongst every other trait, this needs an overhaul as importantly as anything else. India needs to accept the game, the way it accepted cricket after the 1983 World Cup victory. The marketing needs to be there as well to play the catalyst, but a welcome attitude is a must. Also, fans need to be more forthcoming and accepting. Biases at the club level run too deep at times and derail a lot of football initiatives in major footballing cities.
European football fans need to cheer as purposefully for their local clubs. Visit the stadiums, cheer-boo players, create fan-groups, spend your evenings better and contribute to the game. The fan culture should not remain concentrated around big games or in specific areas, but should linger far more.
Parents, too, need to take to supporting the game. More children need to get into the game and a significantly higher number need to stay in the game at higher age-groups.
This and a little more, may take India far. Also, we need to understand that 2026 is not the target, 2023 is. India have close to six years to prepare and will need to do more work in these six than they’ve done in the last 10-15 years. Then and only then, can India have a faint chance of qualifying for the World Cup.
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