Nibbling at the grass or going to the roots?

With a blatant disregard for the past, an erratic present and a blinkered vision for the future, the ISL grassroots programmes sit on barren ground. No verdant expanse is in sight.

The Reliance Foundation Young Champs team is being given a lot of exposure by being sent abroad.

It can get a bit dull. Time and again, the Indian Super League franchises are quick to emphasise their commitment to grassroots development. This was, after all, a commitment extracted from all teams by Football Sports Development Limited (FDSL), the parent body of the ISL.

Ever since the League’s inception, we have heard rehearsed quotes about the benefits brought to Indian football by the grassroots programme. Although the pathways and rewards for Indian footballers remain unclear, the people in and around the ISL are firm in their belief that the initiatives will deliver benefits.

But a closer look at the programmes makes it obvious that there exists a conflation between the grassroots programme and youth development. The ISL website lists three objectives which underline the grassroots project — encourage and enable children to play football; grow interest and numbers in the sport among the youth; and spread awareness about children’s health and nutrition.

While the grassroots initiative, overseen by technical director Piet Hubers, has acquired the look of an outreach programme, the Reliance Foundation Young Champs aims to identify and nurture talented footballers in the age group of 11 to 14. With full-time residential scholarships for 48 players at the moment, the Navi Mumbai-based RFYC academy was recently accorded the highest rating, four stars, by the All India Football Federation.

It is worth noting that the AIFF started accrediting academies only in 2015 and no other institution is on a par with the Navi Mumbai academy. The federation’s proximity with Reliance raises questions over the validity of the said accreditation. The AIFF’s commitment to grassroots development, though, has been reiterated in recent weeks following India’s maiden appearance in the FIFA under-17 World Cup.

Yet, doubts persist over the direction taken by grassroots initiatives in the country. When presented with an opportunity to invest in a system youth development, the AIFF notably chose to send India’s under-17 squad on a string of exposure tours. A general estimate suggests the governing body spent nearly Rs. 15 crore on a bunch of players, instead of building a feeder line for national teams. The budget for the Indian squad’s preparation dwarfed the expenditure of probably every team at the World Cup; India’s players, though, were dwarfed by the quality of football they came across.

The cautionary tale is likely to remain unheeded. The AIFF’s Head of Player Development, Richard Hood, has frequently emphasised the need for long-term development; the response to his ideas inside the governing body, though, has been lukewarm. The ISL grassroots may not provide a respite either. The success stories of the RFYC, Kshitij Kumar (u-13) and G. Balaji (u-15) who were signed by NEC Nijmegen earlier this year, are of dubious nature. A quick visit to the Dutch club’s website shows that neither of the youngsters features in the first team squad of his respective age group.

Furthermore, it would be worth recalling that one of the RFYC coaches is former NEC Nijmegen employee Mark Vaessen. While it is certainly worth appreciating that new pathways may have opened up for young footballers on account of their involvement with the ISL, quite often we have seen Indian players coming unstuck abroad. It is not always down to a lack of quality; some of the moves facilitated by coaches at their former clubs are often not the best arrangements for a player.

Even in the case of Kumar and Balaji, it is not very clear what they will gain on account of their involvement in the Netherlands. If playing opportunities are limited, it could even be a counter-productive move.

However, the fascination with foreign names in Indian football ensures that such concerns are often taken lightly. The ISL franchises of course buy into this belief system. But whether they are looking to develop Indian players or become feeder clubs, it is difficult to say.

Dutchman Piet Hubers, the Indian Super League (ISL) grassroots programme Technical Director, seen with some of the young talents during the Chennaiyin FC conducted grassroots festival for the final selection of kids from Tamil Nadu for the Reliance Foundation Young Champs at the Nehru Stadium practice ground in Chennai on April 11, 2015.   -  M. VEDHAN

 

Delhi Dynamos is one franchise which is quite vocal and proud about its commitment to youth development. The national capital-based club has earned the appreciation of ISL grassroots technical director Hubers, no less. This September, the franchise even announced its participation in the underage I-leagues. Dynamos, Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC will be the only ISL franchises participating in the competitions.

When Sportstar spoke to Aakash Narula, the head of Football Development at Dynamos, he was keen to stress the franchise’s links with the Doha-based Aspire Academy. With two full-time Aspire coaches in charge of every side except the first team and a designated programme for coach education, the two-time semifinalist is aiming to take the lead in youth development. Narula added that by virtue of being the only club in North India, the franchise has a wide catchment area at its disposal.

“The soccer school is the first step of the pyramid. We are planning to send a group of under-16 kids for a year-long residential programme at the Aspire Academy,” revealed Narula. These moves, he argues, shows a pathway of development and opportunities in senior football for young Indian footballers.

But it is difficult to find confidence in Narula’s claim. Numbers are often close to the heart of every franchise’s grassroots initiative. Speak to any of their executives and impressive factoids are bandied about. However, the relationship between participation numbers and youth development remains hazy at best.

The intersection between encouraging children to play football and the scouting and development of talented players is not clearly defined. A franchise reaching out to thousands of kids may not find a single player worthy of its youth development programme. But difficult questions do not find space in the sea of optimism.

Although franchise executives often cite long-term planning, their actions betray their words. It is worth noting that ahead of the fourth season, none of the teams could legitimately claim to have developed a ‘homegrown’ player worthy of the first team. Instead, the general desire is to embark on wholesale changes. Delhi Dynamos might be establishing a reliable youth development system but it is rather odd that the franchise chose not to retain a single player from last season’s squad which reached the playoffs. New owners and managers seem to prefer a total break from the past.

This seems rather apt for a competition which has overturned the Indian football ecosystem in its desire to herald a new beginning for the sport. ‘Future hai football (the future is football)” is the much-quoted slogan for this season’s ISL. But a longer competition has not seemingly done away with short-termism.

With a blatant disregard for the past, an erratic present and a blinkered vision for the future, the ISL grassroots programmes sit on barren ground. No verdant expanse is in sight.