All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel painted a rosy picture for the game’s future in the country even though he bemoaned the fact that the national team could have fared better during his tenure, which comes to an end in December this year after taking office in 2008.
In this interview with Sportstar , Patel speaks on various aspects of the game.
Q. What have been the gains from your tenure?
A. We have significantly been able to professionalise the game right from the grassroot to the league structure. The AIFF is now a body geared to handle all the aspects of the game with utmost professionalism. More important is the focus in India for football, the people playing, watching, their number has grown in a big way exponentially. Football earlier was individuals playing for the country in team format. There was no co-ordinated approach to the game. It has changed now. I leave behind a robust football structure.
What have been the changes?
There are lot of activities at the grassroot level itself. There is development, and leagues at various age levels. It will bring in a huge pipeline for football. The alignment of young professional players representing the country has grown. In a few years, they will play the senior leagues and come into the national team. They will bring a remarkable difference to the quality of football in India.
Would you put a time limit to that?
Not really. It is already happening. Five years down the line I can see the impact of what is being done now. The profile of football, the way it is played, the way players are mentally, physically and emotionally conditioned to play a high level of competition will change dramatically. We have a new lot of dynamic, energetic and fearless players.
What are your views on the governance part of the AIFF?
The AIFF governance standards have been very high. We have professionalised the entire set up. We must be among the finest governed federations in the country. We have the structure in place. That’s the reason I am confident our initiatives would be realised.
From a layman’s perspective what ails Indian football?
The first thing he wants to see is the national team doing very well. We are compared with cricket. In cricket we do well relatively. When cricket is doing well people think everything is great. When we do better than the past in football it doesn’t help because the global level of the game is so high. Every team in the world is playing football unlike cricket which is not globally competitive. Only a few nations play cricket. The game of cricket has had a boost in the last 40-50 years. A similar boost is round the corner in football.
Does football also suffer because of lack of sponsors?
Of course it does. The biggest drawback for football, and many other sports in the country, is the chicken and egg situation. What comes first? The money comes first or the level of the competition goes higher first. Sponsors prefer cricket. Other sports suffer on this front but Indian football has attracted lot of corporate in the recent past. Viewership for football has increased. Attendance at stadiums has increased. It is creating a new financial eco-system. Much more robust than the past. Five years ago, the money we spent on football was, say 100 crore. Now it is close to 1000 crore. That much more money has come for football. Once the national teams starts performing better, more people will start watching and following football. I can see that change coming in Indian football.
Is AIFF looking to tap the potential for football in the north-east?
Most certainly. North-east is the hot bed of Indian football. Football is the number one game in north-east to be played and watched. People are more passionate about football than cricket. Kids are playing from an early age and are physically, mentally and emotionally well equipped to play high level of football. But other parts of the country are also seeing a rise in football. Earlier, we had very few pockets for football – Kerala, Bengal, North-East. Now it is across the country.
Are you worried at losing out on traditional spots?
Not at all. Punjab is seeing a renaissance. There are many players coming from Punjab in all age groups. The youth teams have been on the rise. There was a dip but the good thing is that football is picking up rapidly in places like Hyderabad, Chennai. Good signs in Kashmir. There is rise in football being played in Odisha and Gujarat too.
Does football suffer from lack of infrastructure?
A) Very much. It suffers from infrastructural constraints. That is one side. There is very limited infrastructure for football but there has been improvement. We used to have I-League matches in the afternoons and they were played in poor quality stadiums. The grounds have improved now. Matches are played under floodlights. There is TV coverage. ISL (Indian Super League) coverage is high quality. We have procured land in Delhi (in Dwarka) and AIFF will have its own stadium.
Is ISL the way forward?
ISL is now the league of the country. It is an AIFF product. We have promotion and relegation process. I-League clubs will get promoted to ISL and those clubs will not have to pay franchise fees. Next I-League season there will be a club from Delhi too. We are working on that.
How do you look at death of some prominent clubs like JCT, Dempo?
It is just a shake up of the existing clubs and I won’t call it death of clubs. All these ISL clubs have new clubs. I-League has some new clubs. Mohun Bagan is very much alive. It is just that they have a new commercial partner.
Is not playing Asian Games a setback?
I won’t blame anyone. I don’t think Asian Games is that important. The Champions league and the AFC Cup are the real competitions. We should be focusing on them. Asian Games is not the focus. It hardly matters. It is only a limited tournament, particular age group, once in four years. It has no bearing on rankings.
Your views on the performance of the men's national team..
We supported the national team fully in every single way. We have never cut corners with the national team. I feel they could have done better. Now we have a new coach. Let’s back them.
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Your plans at the grassroot level?
We have leagues in various age groups. We had the Under-17 Men’s World Cup. Now we are going to have the Under-17 Women’s World Cup. We have leagues in various age groups. Youth development is the main focus. Things are looking up with foreign clubs coming and investing in Indian youth. Football needs money and professionalism. If anyone is willing to put money we welcome. There are so many academies coming up. They also have a role to play.
The impact of foreign leagues on TV?
It is unfortunate that people watch the EPL and La Liga on TV and they expect the same thing to be in India. Those leagues are good because the world’s best are playing in it. Why don’t they watch other leagues of the world? Why just these two? Let us not compare.
Would your involvement with AIFF end permanently?
All organisations live in eternity. They work in perpetuity. There will always be somebody who will take my place. My involvement with Indian football will remain forever. I am on the FIFA Council. I will work with the AIFF very closely. My first priority will be to support Indian football.
How would hosting the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup help?
It will have a positive impact. Will create a buzz among the young girls to take to the game. It tells the world how we are promoting football in India. Our women will qualify for the World Cup before the men do. I am sure the men would qualify for the 2026 World Cup.
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