As the league enters the next phase of its development the implementation of a model grassroots structure is pivotal to its long term sustainabilit-.
After closely missing out on winning the Indian Super League in their debut year in the final, Bengaluru FC exorcised their ghosts of the past in this edition of the ISL. Rahul Bheke took matters in his own hands or head to be more accurate, and scored the match winning goal in the 117th minute in extra time following ninety minutes of goalless football.
And it comes as no surprise that Bengaluru FC has now won six trophies in as many years and were really close to winning two more league titles and an AFC Cup. They are merely being rewarded for the professionalism they have shown in all departments of the sport and having been the most consistent football club in the country since their very inception. This professionalism has not just reflected but been an integral part in their signing of players, recruitment of head coach and technical staff, support staff and operations staff.
The Blues’ entire operation and the whole system from the ground up has been responsible for their success and which is now the envy of clubs all over the country that are desperately trying to replicate something similar. And at the centre of it, lies Bengaluru FC’s youth academy and a clear plan of not just accommodating, developing and easing the transition of as many local youngsters to the first team as possible.
Responding to the need of carving out a youth development program, Bengaluru directors came up with a proper, solid pyramidal structure strategy of improving youth talents and having them play for the first team. On the lowest base of the pyramid and the most important is the BFC Soccer Schools that deals with grassroots football and is the sieve that filters those that get selected from the rest. Young talents are trained throughout the year by tactically astute coaches before their trials to ensure them fairness and correct judgements.
Once they make it past the soccer schools, the fully funded Bengaluru FC Academy awaits them where they are trained according to the central idea governing Bengaluru Football Club and with the latest training methods available. These groups also actively take part in regional and national level competitions throughout the year. The youth academy participates in the Youth League U15 and Youth League U18 tournaments whereas the Bengaluru B team takes part in the second division of the I League and forms the bridge between the first team and the academy.
“Giving children the basics in football at the early ages is very important and BFC Soccer Schools does just that,” said Sunil Chhetri, the highest scorer in the history of the Indian national team and the talisman of Bengaluru FC.
With the emergence of young talents like Nishu Kumar, Rahul Bheke, Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Sahal Abdul Samad, Mohammad Nawaz players that have shown a maturity beyond their years and proven that they are integral part of their respective squads and aren’t on the first team merely to fill up spots or to deputise for the older mainstays and the foreigners.
And the ISL clubs have been taking note of late. Delhi Dynamos coach Josep Gombau spoke a few months ago on the dire importance of focussing on developing local players. Gombau who is a seasoned trainer of youth football and having worked with FC Barcelona’s youth setup between 2003 to 2009 said in a press conference, “It is important to develop kids, make academies and work on the talent of youngsters. The population of India is huge and it can be strong in world football if the kids are worked upon.”
The current rules of ISL stipulate that teams have to field at least six Indian players and can field a maximum of five foreigners on the pitch at the same time. Josep Gombau, however advocated the cause of having at least seven nationals on the field of play to bring out the best of home-grown talent and provide them suitable opportunities for development.
“Around Asia, it is normal to have five foreigners in the team and six local players. In my opinion, a team should have at least seven local footballers to develop home players.”
Jamshedpur FC manager Cesar Ferrando echoed similar sentiments by asking Indian football stakeholders to invest in grassroots football more and more. “There are many big coaches in the ISL. If Indian football wants to improve, getting big coaches is not enough. The real work has to be done at the grassroots level. You can get all the foreign coaches, but unless you start developing football from the bottom with your younger players and impart them the proper technical training, you cannot improve. Grassroots development has to be the priority,” he said.
Just like his fellow Spaniard Ferrando who had his footballing education at Atlético de Madrid, the current manager of the champions, Carles Cuadrat had his education at Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy and he too, chimed in on the importance that refocussing on youth development played in the improvement of his country’s football landscape that eventually cumulated in Vicente del Bosque’s historic era that saw them winning two Euro Cups back to back as well as a FIFA World Cup.
He insisted that other clubs and organisations should follow Bengaluru FC’s pyramid structure and hierarchy to get the best out of their system. “The ISL as a tournament is played at a good level but there is a huge gap with other divisions. Like our ‘B’ team is winning by 11-0 or 6-0 margins in the local tournament. It does not speak well of the conditions,” Cuadrat said about the disparity in the overall standard of football in the country. “So you need a pyramid like structure with a big talent pool at the base under quality coaches, from where the better players will move to the top league of the country. See the example of the Spanish clubs in La Liga who developed talents over decades to get the national reign on top of the world in 2010,” Cuadrat said.
It will be fascinating to see whether the Indian Super League and its clubs’ youth development programs led by the Blues can actually usher in a new era for Indian football with new faces to inspire the next generation.