India Football, Money, and Black Holes

Indian Football Team (Photo: AIFF)

It’s hard to believe that many thought there were winds of change sweeping across Indian football just over seven months ago. The national team was on an upward trajectory, and there was genuine hope that better days lay ahead. Since then, we’ve seen the Asian Games team selection fiasco and an Asian Cup campaign that was embarrassingly toothless.

The can is open and there seems to be no end to the number of worms crawling out. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) president is apparently not on talking terms with the national coach. The governing body’s legal head claims he hasn’t been paid in months. The former secretary general was summarily sacked. Other executive committee members have raised allegations of financial malpractice. In short, we’re back to square minus-one.

What makes it all the more frustrating is the money, or promised sums, sloshing around in Indian football. Recently, the government of Kerala has been negotiating with the Argentine Football Federation to have them play three international friendlies in the state between 2025 and 2027. With Kerala ceding ground to no territory when it comes to Messi worship, the sum apparently being set aside for this project is 100 crores.

Mind you, Messi will be 38 in 2025. He’s already years past his best, and as the recent shambles in Hong Kong showed, he’s not prepared to be some performing flea for the teams he plays for to rake in the dollars. And if Argentina did end up playing the three games without Messi, you can guarantee that several disgruntled sponsors would take legal action against the government of Kerala.

The government has also pledged a sum of 800 crores to uplift football standards across the state. This is a laudable aim. Once a provider of several stalwarts to national teams, Kerala now struggles to put players even on the bench. But again, who will manage such huge funds? What is their football knowledge or acumen? Where will they travel to do their due diligence? Which development models will they copy? There are no answers, just vague statements.

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Knowledge is the key word here. For decades now, European football has set the standard. Almost every tactical innovation, from the days of RinusMichels and ValeriyLobanovskyi, to Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cruyff, and then on to Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, has come from European football. The most revered South American coach, Marcelo Bielsa, has mostly been viewed as a prophet outside his homeland. And whether it’s Messi a generation ago, or Julian Alvarez today, the continent’s best players have been polished into 24-carat diamonds in the crucible of European club football.

So, instead of visiting state-of-the-art academies at Manchester City or Liverpool – no coincidence that both coaches are visionaries – most of these ‘fact-finding’ missions will instead waste time in Brazil and Argentina, in search of nostalgia and little else. If any of those who squander public money actually watched football on a weekly basis, instead of once in four years during the World Cup, they would know that South American club football lags years behind. Economic hardship has played its part, but the top clubs also didn’t evolve as needed.

Instead of wasting 100 crores on Messi and Argentina, a three-day conference showcasing a top coach – Guardiola, Klopp, Bielsa, Ancelotti, Arteta or Alonso – could be held every year for three years at a fifth of the cost. That would do something about the appalling knowledge gap at the lower levels of coaching, something that Igor Stimac, India’s coach, has often alluded to.

The other big issue for India football is the lack of playing fields. If a Trent Alexander-Arnold can effortlessly ping 60-yard cross-field balls from right-back, it’s because he’s been playing on a full-size pitch since he was a kid. Most Indian players didn’t even see a proper, well-grassed, full-size pitch until they were well into their teens. It takes a crore, at most, to lay down an international-standard pitch. With 800 crores, you could ensure at least 100 such pitches across a state, while having the bulk of the money left over.

But why do we even waste our breath on this? Most long-time followers of Indian football know what the problems are and how they need to be addressed. But as long as those running the game are more occupied with ego clashes and vested interests, nothing is about to change.

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