Toal’s focus total

Colm Toal, the AIFF Chief Coach of Youth Development, watching his wards in action at the Bangalore Football Stadium recently.-K. MURALI KUMAR

“From a youth development point of view, things have got better. The youth academies were put into place, which gives India a real chance of moving forward. We now have our boys in five or six centres across the country. The best in the country play matches and train every day, so Indian football must get better,” Colm Toal, the AIFF Chief Coach of Youth Development, tells Ashwin Achal.

Perched in the stands, with a bird’s eye view of the action, Colm Toal’s attention is focussed on the India under-22 team at practice. Toal, sitting alongside the senior national coach, Wim Koevermans, and All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) youth development program instructor Scott O’Donnell, takes notes on the players’ performances.

At the end of each 20-minute scrimmage, he is part of a lively discussion with the others on the progress made by his wards.

The AIFF Chief Coach of Youth Development — who has trained young Indian footballers for the last eight years — remains passionate about his job. It is clear — even in his brief, yet animated interactions with the players — that he has his mind set on ensuring a bright future for Indian football.

In 2011, the arrival of decorated Dutch coach Rob Baan and O’Donnell provided the Englishman with the perfect team to implement his vision. Toal hails the two appointments as the start of a key phase for Indian football.

“From a youth development point of view, once Rob Baan and Scott (O’Donnell) came here, things have got better. The youth academies were put into place, which gives India a real chance of moving forward. We now have our boys in five or six centres across the country.

“The best in the country play matches and train every day, so Indian football must get better. We simply must. This is the most positive thing to happen during my time here,” Toal says at the Bangalore Football Stadium, in an interview to Sportstar.

Toal does believe in keeping his prospects on the football field for consistently long periods. The newly-formed Elite Academy in Goa — where India’s most promising under-19 footballers train under him — is a step in this direction. “Our academies are open for 11 months in a year. When you have the boys playing through the year, there is bound to be improvement. We have good coaches, good facilities and good players — things we have never had before.”

The I-League team Pailan Arrows, which has now been disbanded, appealed to Toal, because it was grooming youngsters.-

In the past, junior camps were held to scope out the talent, but the short length of these programmes remained an issue. This concern, Toal says, has now been addressed. “There have been national camps before, which were also good, but they lasted only for three or six months. National camps did not last as long as these academies which function now, which is a very positive step forward.” There are other problems, though, which remain. The bridge between the under-19 and senior levels is shaky, with many slipping through the cracks. “Unfortunately, the I-League (India’s national senior football league) does not have a good record of looking after young players. That is a fact. We do sincerely hope that our players get to play for an I-League club. But, the worry is that many of them are not looked after properly once they get into a team.”

Toal explains that I-League clubs are stuck with a short-term vision, where the goal of attaining instant results acts as a blinder, and the big picture is lost. “I think the problem is that we do not have enough clubs who want to make themselves ‘real clubs’, so to speak. They want a first-team which wins on that weekend; they want to build a team that can win the I-League that season. But, there is no real inclination to build a club from bottom to top.

“Our I-League clubs have abdicated their responsibility to Indian football for many years. I am not saying they have not put money into Indian football, but what they have not done is to use that money to build a real club, instead of always building just a team.

“When they start building a club with under-12, under-14 guys playing regularly with good coaching, they will see the results in the future. But, at the moment, what they do is they use academies like the Tata Football Academy or our international under-19 programmes to get players. If these players are not good enough to get into the first team, they are out. They will not progress. There is no concept of a reserve team, there is no real under-19 set-up, no coaches to look after them. It is very difficult for these boys to continue from here, because they just lose heart.”

Toal is especially disappointed at the disbanding of the Pailan Arrows team, an I-League club which consisted of India’s best junior footballers. “It is a great pity. The Pailan Arrows was a bridge between the under-19 and the I-League.”

Despite the hurdles, Toal’s reign has seen some stellar performances — a fine show in the AFC Under-19 Championship qualifiers (2013), and a dream run on a tour of Europe where they defeated their counterparts from Stuttgart, 1860 Munich and FC Augsburg (2007).

“It is nice to do well abroad, but the most important thing is the body of work that you do. I would like to feel that I have made a small contribution to the growth of the players and coaches I have worked with.”