The former India international spoke exclusively to Khel Now on a range of issues in Indian football.

The most awaited football event – the 17th edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup is round the corner and football fanatics of the country are in for a big treat. With the youth World Cup set to be held in the country starting next month, the event could mark a watershed moment in the country’s football history.

Furthermore, with an expanded version of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League set to run parallelly from the backend of the year to the middle of next year, it promises to be a few action-packed months ahead in domestic football.

As a former India international, Henry Menezes knows everything about playing on the highest stage. Menezes is currently the Chief Executive Officer at the Western India Football Association (WIFA) the governing body of the sport in the state of Maharashtra. Over the years, since hanging up his gloves the former shot-stopper has served Indian football in many roles – manager of the Indian national team and manager at former top flight outfit Mahindra United FC to name but two. He has also been instrumental in the journey of one of the region’s top clubs in Mumbai FC. Menezes recently spoke exclusively to Khel Now’s Consulting Editor Joe Williams in a candid chat about the domestic football scene. Excerpts:

Q1: Is the I-League a sinking ship? If not, what steps should be taken to revive the league?

A- The I-League has always been considered the premier league of our country. Since the introduction of the ISL, it is being looked upon as a second tier league. The ISL is here to raise the benchmark in Indian football and it has already made an impact. For the short-term, conducting two leagues at a time sounds good. But in the long run, there has to be only one league. We don’t have to invent anything new, but what we need to do is to reinforce the league in quality.

Q2: With Mumbai FC deciding to shut shop, many players, especially from Mumbai have been left in the lurch because of the decision taken by the owners. What is your take on the situation?

A- It is about corporate clubs Vs people’s clubs. These business decisions have seen many corporate clubs close down. We have seen people’s club like Mohammedan Sporting, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Vasco Sports club and others who are still around. Once Mumbai used to have 3-4 teams in the I-League. The local leagues were strong. There was a proper structure for moving into the highest league of the country. Today, we consider direct entry into the highest league. This is confusing for corporates and the existence of clubs is at stake. There’s no formula for growth or to enable them to make a profit. Hence, we see no motivation.

Q3: There are many new leagues coming up for budding players. Can you take us through them?

The transition from school to club football is very important. If you see a couple of years ago there were no clubs after the school leagues. Now, we have accredited U-14, U-16 and U-18 championships for the clubs which is a good sign.

Q4: The ISL has opened a new chapter in our country, both for the spectators and players. But there are just a few Indian players who make it to that level. What should be done to give more Indian players opportunities in the league?

A- Scheduling two leagues one after another is bad as we have limited players who play both leagues. Now, we will have two leagues running simultaneously. Hence, more players should get opportunities at the top level, which I feel is a short-term goal. Eventually, we need one-country-one-league, with 16-20 teams which will boost the ecosystem by generating more players and opportunities. Also, the structure needs to have five age group teams to create more pathways for young aspiring players to move up the ladder.

Menezes calls for one-country-one-league

Q5: As we speak, Maharashtra is unlikely to have an I-League team next season. Why do you think this has happened?

A- Corporates are waiting to see A league structure take shape, which is one-country-one-league and a proper playing field for terms with promotion and relegation. Mumbai being the financial capital of the country, it will surely boom with teams. This is just a temporary downturn in the region’s football.

Q6: How do you assess the impact of the ISL?

A- The ISL is setting a benchmark. Very soon it will lead to the creation of one big league with an equal playing field. Cricket has shown us how the 1983 World Cup win was marketed to bring a turnaround in the country’s game. Look how they slowly brought in shorter formats of the game to keep people engaged. The  Indian Premier League (IPL) has been a great success. We could say that the ISL is the IPL of Indian football and is creating a benchmark for club leagues, where Indian players are rubbing shoulders with some of the top players in the world. The impact of this has been seen in the improved performance of the national team. Once we get that one big result with the national team the entire ecosystem will work to make football the next big sport in the country.

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Q7: All the ISL teams have celebrated foreign coaches. But, ironically there is no Indian as a head coach. Why?

A- It’s an attempt to create a valuable product for fans and television. Very soon it will be a level playing field where all will have a chance. I am confident that Indian coaches will soon find their place in the ISL.

Q8: Finally, your take on the forthcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup and its legacy for Indian football?

A- It is going to create a great impact. For me, the FIFA U-17 World Cup will inspire the youth to believe that they can also play at the highest level. There will be huge grassroots and youth movement in the country.