Praful Patel: ‘The emphasis is on the grassroots’

“Our objective is to build Indian football for the future. We have made a beginning in the right direction,” says the AIFF president, Praful Patel.

Praful Patel... “The AIFF has already told FIFA that we are interested in hosting the Under-20 World Cup. We are ready to do it next year if possible.”   -  PTI

For all that he may or may not have done for Indian football as the long-term president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Praful Patel would forever be remembered as the man under whose leadership India hosted its first-ever world-level FIFA event. The upcoming Under-17 World Cup would not only be the biggest football competition to be held in the country but also mark India’s initiation into the league of nations capable of hosting such a big-ticket event. However, it would also depend on how well the AIFF and India manage to pull off the 21-day competition, beginning on October 6.

But even as all the attention is focussed on the preparations for the Under-17 World Cup, there is no denying the fact that there are a lot more areas of concern for Indian football, including the continued existence of two domestic leagues, both very different in their composition, conduct and recognition. In an exclusive interview with Sportstar, Patel spoke on a variety of issues.


Question: The ongoing round of FIFA inspections of the six World Cup venues has evoked a mixed response from the officials. How confident are you of having things in place by the final inspection?

Answer: I think we will be ready, there is no doubt about it. In fact, the FIFA inspection team has already stated that it is quite satisfied. They are not asking for something which is not doable and by the final inspection in July, all six venues will be okay. All the venues will be absolutely ready.

Is there a deadline you have set for yourself for the completion of the work?

Actually, we would ideally want everything to be ready by the end of April because, with natural turf and other things, if there are some things to be worked on you have enough time. We have monsoons etc., so those kind of things should not bother us. Broadly speaking, things are on track and I don’t see many issues. Whatever is pending is minor work, the FIFA guys haven’t asked for something major.

In terms of the venues for the World Cup, all the six stadia are huge and we all know how difficult it is to fill stadia in India. Do you think it would have been better to get new infrastructure in Tier 2 and 3 cities with an eye on the future?

Actually, if we did not have these huge venues, we would not have been awarded the Under-17 World Cup in the first place. To create new infrastructure requires a lot of money, land and commitment and in our kind of system, it might not have been possible. This was the right way to go about hosting the World Cup. As for stadia filling up, that’s not the issue. Yes, we would like to see full stands. The JLN Stadium (Delhi) is an extremely big stadium; Kochi, Kolkata are all big but I think that since it is a youth tournament, we should encourage kids and youth to come in. That’s why the price of tickets has also been kept very reasonable — capped at Rs. 100 at most places.

Union Sports Minister Vijay Goyal punts a ball as the AIFF president, Praful Patel, watches during the launch of the Under-17 FIFA World Cup mascot, Kheleo, in New Delhi.   -  PTI


Constantine recently suggested having a common coaching structure across all age groups, with the chief coach having a say. Are you open to the idea?

We sent him to the Under-17 team for a week to just be a part of the continuation process and mentally condition them. So, thanks to him for his advice, but we don’t have to necessarily implement it at the moment. The AIFF has a technical department which will decide all these things. Coaches don’t have to give us the structure. The coach should restrict himself to coaching and making the national team stronger.

Talking of the national team, India finally won a match overseas recently. Are you satisfied?

I am happy the jinx has been broken. Not that the Indian team has not been playing well in the last few years, but unfortunately, in any tournament outside the country, they have not been able to win. Also, for both our outings outside, we have been plain unlucky with the draw and in very difficult groups. It’s a good thing and I am happy for the team for having given us at least a win against Cambodia, even though the margin is just 3-2.

What is the status of the prickly issue of ISL-I-League merger? Will there be an I-League next year?

See, everything is happening, it’s a work in progress. Till the time a decision is taken, all these speculations should stop. Right now there is an ISL and the I-League, so we should let the teams and players concentrate on that instead of talking about what will happen. As and when something happens, we will keep everyone informed.

As for the I-League, that is always going to happen. Even in any proposed new structure, there will always be an I-League, there should not be any doubt about that.

What progress has been made in developing the aforesaid new structure?

It’s a work in progress. Nothing has been finalised yet, there are lots of things we have to see and assess before anything can be decided. We will never do anything where the larger interests of Indian football and the legacies of Indian football are not taken care of.

Access to infrastructure is a major issue for clubs in the country, whether it is ISL or I-League. How is the AIFF planning to help them in this matter?

See, the AIFF cannot help people build stadiums. If a club has to own a stadium, it has to bring in that infrastructure. At best, we can write to state governments and authorities to help. It’s a chicken and egg situation — people often criticise us, but the fact is that the clubs also have to invest money and then they will get the returns. The AIFF cannot do everything. Some of the newer clubs have now started the process. DSK Shivajians and Chennai City have bought land to develop their own grounds, so have Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong. The teams are now realising they need to have control of grounds to develop their teams and it is a good beginning.

But the federation does have some role and responsibility. Are there any plans to resolve this issue in the long-term?

That’s why we are trying to get the whole new long-term structure in place, keeping all these factors in mind and trying to overcome them. The objective is to build Indian football for the future. We have made a beginning in the right direction. I understand there are difficulties, nobody is denying that, but they will have to be overcome. If everything was so simple then there was no need to talk about it. The federation is doing its best.

How do you look at the recent practice of foreign clubs coming frequently and holding trials/clinics and promising foreign training trips to kids?

All these so-called clubs or the academies they claim to set up are only to make money. They are not here to develop Indian football. If they wanted to do that, they must invest in Indian football. They are only coming here using their brand awareness, taking kids to play, earn money and go back. They are welcome to do as they wish but we are not involved. If they approach us, we will be happy to discuss with them. But we cannot go around regulating them or telling people to avoid them. There is no interface with us, they are not registering players or anything.

The only international club to come and anchor itself was Atletico Madrid in Kolkata, that’s the true way of investing in Indian football. But I am sure, as Indian football develops, the clubs will look at India more seriously than they have done so far.

Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri (11) shoots wide against Shillong Lajong FC during an I-League match at the Sri Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on January 7, 2017.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy


What are the plans for women’s football?

The national team is getting reasonable exposure but we want it to be better and stronger. We will give more attention in terms of better coaching, exposure and infrastructure. I seriously believe the Indian women’s team will qualify for a World Cup before the men, given the competition within Asia and because they are better ranked.

As for the women’s league, the first year was just an attempt to show our intentions. We want better clubs to set up women’s teams and we want all clubs in the ISL and I-League to eventually have their women’s teams. We already have women’s teams from Pune FC and Aizawl FC. We will be seriously pursuing the matter with them.

In terms of India’s preparation, the players also have been in a bit of a turmoil recently. How confident are you of the team’s preparation?

Well, whatever happened with the coach was unfortunate (Nicolai Adam was accused of mistreating the players) but having said that, we have been able to very quickly restore things back to normal. Within 30 days we got things back and, even in those 30 days, we did not let things go out of control. The players were asked to group back in Goa, we had orientation going on. Stephen (Constantine) went there and spent a week with the players and Scott (Adams) was also there with them. It’s not like there was a major upheaval, but yes, I do admit it was unfortunate. But now we have got a very good coach, again highly recommended, and I think he has hit the ground running. I think the team will be able to do very well. We have also added a lot of other things, including counselling, having doctors for mental conditioning and to make them stronger and other stuff.

What are your realistic hopes with regard to India in the Under-17 World Cup?

Our first aim is to motivate the Indian youngsters to take to football and be part of something they would otherwise never have had a chance to be. India would never have been in a World Cup tournament otherwise, this is a big moment and a chance for us to galvanise and motivate maximum number of youngsters to play football. Yes, we would want the team to do as well as possible, but I think it’s also a chance to spread football that we shouldn’t miss out.

Our emphasis of hosting the event is on developing Indian football at the grass-root level. In fact, for the first time in the last 5-7 years, our emphasis has been on the grassroots because we know, eventually, Indian football’s future lies with its youth, not the present lot. Unfortunately, of all the things we are doing, this aspect has been the least reported.

What next for the AIFF after this? Is the Under-20 World Cup on its radar?

The AIFF has already told FIFA that we are interested in hosting the Under-20 World Cup. We are ready to do it next year if possible, but it isn’t that simple. It is our next mission, but how and when we will get it, I cannot say.