Indian football aficionados have been treated to several positive news recently. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) had earlier announced that the India men's senior team will take on China in China in an international friendly in October this year.
More importantly, the India U20 team, consisting of players from the Indian Arrows and the India U19 side, held Venezuela U20 to a goalless draw before stunning Argentina U20 2-1 in the COTIF Cup in Spain. Next, they are set to play Croatia, Slovenia and France in a tournament in Croatia later this year.
Such developments, which sees Indian teams stand toe-to-toe with quality opposition, are indicative of the efforts the Indian FA has been putting in to ensure that development of players is not stunted. And this includes the girls’ sides. Pointedly, the India U15 side have just won the SAFF Championship while the women's senior team have gone abroad for the first time in decades.
The AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das indicated that the federation has put in a concerted effort to ensure the development of the current crop of youngsters who are the future of the game in India.
"We are 100 per cent committed to helping our players improve, which is why they are being sent on exposure tours where they are pitted with quality opponents. The Union Ministry and the SAI have supported our initiatives and have extended their helping hand, We are all working towards a brighter future for the national team," said Das.
Goal caught up with Abhishek Yadav, former India international and currently the AIFF's Director of National Teams, to get a clearer idea as to what the federation has planned for the future. He stressed on the fact that the FA plans to give all Indian teams an opportunity to play against quality opponents starting from a younger age, and preferably in a competitive atmosphere.
"The U-16 Boys team is on tour playing against AFC-qualified teams where they beat the likes of Iraq, Jordan and Yemen, the U17 Girls played the BRICS competition and Indian Arrows did well in the COTIF Cup. The idea is to ensure they get to play tougher and bigger opponents", he said.
"We have made an attempt to put in place a template for all national teams across every age group. A lot of matches have been arranged for each team. Even within this, playing in a tournament gets top billing. We also want to make sure that training conditions in India and while on tours are of the same quality or even better. It is very important.”
"Additionally, the exposure also benefits the coaches, which will help them in continental tournaments," expressed Abhishek.
It is not just the men's teams who are set to benefit. The women's teams are also set to get a push with them having already undertaken a Spain tour (for the COTIF Cup).
"The senior Womens’ team played against Morocco and a host of Spanish league clubs in Spain.”
"It was a good test for them and this is just a beginning. They will have a busier calendar in place now. Our philosophy is the same for both teams (men's and women's). We want to get them good matches outside the country from a younger age. The hope is that these matches will help them prepare and play better in the future," asserted Abhishek.
"We are increasing our global reach and contacts to ensure good matches for teams across all the age groups. But it is not easy for junior and sub-junior teams. We see players from the current India U16 team and the Indian Arrows go on to form the core group of the national team in 4-5 years. So, it is very important that they have a systematic plan from a very early age. Experiencing top-level football in Asia, to begin with, is a good start," he said.
Abhishek went on to acknowledge the support the AIFF has received from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) in helping lay a solid platform for the various age group teams. In fact, it must be noted that AIFF President Praful Patel and Kushal Das have taken a personal interest in these projects.
"It is very important for us to work together and even the AIFF President has been very clear about it while presenting our plans to the SAI and MYAS. They have believed in our plan from the outset. SAI Director General Neelam Kapoor, Sports Secretary Rahul Bhatnagar and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (Union Sports Minister) have all been staunch pillars of support for us as we strive for the development of football.“
"All organisations including private entities have to be on the same page when it comes to developing the game in the country."
"Also, when you are dealing with juniors, there are challenges. There are ups and downs. Sometimes it does not go to plan. We try to solve them but support from the various stakeholders is paramount. Numerous clubs have also supported us with respect to loaning us players and ensuring their availability for tours, etc."
Importantly, key stakeholders like Technical Committee chairman Shyam Thapa and Sundar Raman, a member of the Technical Committee and CEO of Reliance Sports, are also kept in the loop.
Abhishek has received a lot of credit for setting up AIFF's scouting system which produced many of the youngsters who shined during the U17 World Cup and in the current India U16 team. He feels that the co-operation from the state associations has played a key role in the scouting endeavours.
"Scouting is an ongoing process. We are a huge country. So, we are doing it phase wise. We are taking a lot of support from state associations. It has to be said that when it comes to national interest, everyone shows a lot of support & encourages the initiative."