Enormous potential offers carries a sizable challenge, and in football terms nowhere is that more true than in India.
To put the potential into some sort of context, the state where I’ve spent the past few days, Maharashtra, has more people than Spain, France and the Netherlands combined.
A sizable number of those can been found on any number of dusty pitches kicking about a football on most evenings, shirts slung across slender shoulders bearing the familiar logos of Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona.
Not many though with the local sides, Pune FC or ONGC on display. That’s part of the challenge.
India is, as Sepp Blatter famously said, a sleeping giant.
It’s a nation with a football culture that would surprise those who associate the sprawling land merely with cricket.
Mohun Bagan, founded in 1889, is one of the planet’s oldest clubs and the derby it, quite literally, fights with East Bengal regularly attracts more than 100,000 spectators.
In the 1956 Olympic Games India finished fourth (eight years after it lost narrowly to France, playing barefoot) and in the 1962 edition it was runner-up to Israel.
Those golden days though are long past. The men’s national team languishes at 167 in FIFA’s Rankings, behind the likes of Myanmar, the Maldives and Hong Kong.
There is hope that change will be not far away and there are several Australians involved in the process.
Scott O’Donell is in charge of the academy system nationwide, Arthur Pappas is the Under-23 coach and ex-Football Federation Australia Technical Director Rob Baan is at the helm the same post in India.
The man at the top of the pile is Wim Koevermans. I sat down this week with the Netherlands international to get a deeper insight into the current state of Indian football.
Why did you decide to undertake this project with India?
After four years working in Ireland as High Performance Director, I felt the time was right for a new challenge . I was speaking with Rob Baan who mentioned they were looking for a coach for the national team.
I thought wow, India is something totally different but Asia always had my attention so I thought I’d have a look. I traveled to India to have a look at both the country and the football.
I went to Goa and saw some matches, spoke to a lot of people and watched some videos of the national team. I realised then that I wanted to do this, to take on this great challenge and experience football in India and in Asia.
What’s the state of football in India?
When FIFA President Sepp Blatter came to India he called the country a sleeping giant and I think you can say that is so. If we look back to that successful period in the 1950s and 1960s I think a lot of other countries in Asia have developed well and maybe not so in India.
People say, 'look the country has 1.2 billion people. That’s a lot of good potential footballers’. Yes, but it’s also very difficult to organise things in a country of this size. There’s a lot of energy and talent in India and there are a lot of good football players in India but the problem is do they get the right training and is everything in place to make sure that kids can play football and develop themselves?
That’s the reality at the moment. It’s not well-organised and the infrastructure is not good. Rob Baan wrote this big football master plan but we need people to implement this.
In a few states they have started with the big pillars of youth development, grassroots coach education, referees and marketing.
Even if you organise it in just a few states you’re talking about millions of people and you should get players who can go into the I-League. That’s a league that also needs to be developed. The money is available but you have to channel it in the right direction and have a good philosophy to build football and give the kids the opportunity to play.
What were the aims and goals you set out with the Federation when you started?
Given the style of play of India and the type of players - quick, with good technique and a great mentality - I told them we should analyse international football and Asian teams, which are capable of playing out from the back and with combination play, that’s what is suitable for our players.
That is where we started and I think that because of that we’re going to have better results over the years to come. We’re now 167 in the rankings and we’ve already improved a little bit but we want to go higher and closer to the 100 mark.
How are preparations for next month’s qualification phase for the AFC Challenge Cup coming along?
Well, unfortunately the AFC decided to play both this tournament and the AFC Cup – a club tournament - at the same time. Initially those club dates were in the middle of the qualification tournament but when the AFC realised this mistake they brought the matches forward, so now I have this problem.
Two Indian sides are competing in the AFC Cup which means I will lose eight players in this crucial stage of developing the team. I understand the position of the clubs but the AFC has created this problem for Indian football and it should not happen.
The AFC should be supporting development not harming it. Now we also have the risk of injury to players. I will complain to the AFC but for now we have to deal with it.
Many people still have the notion that India is just a nation of cricket, is that the case?
Cricket is definitely very visible, I mean if you look at the TV there are four channels of cricket and not much football, but it [football] is popular, especially among the younger kids. Everybody watches the Premier League and the Champions League so football is really in the hearts of the people.
You look then at the derby in Kolkata. Before I came to India I wasn’t aware of it and I’ve mentioned it many times to people in Europe. I say 'look, there’s this derby game when East Bengal plays Mohun Bagan and there are more than 100,000 people inside the stadium’ and they can’t believe it. It’s huge, with people very energetic and very lively during the game.
Recently the U17 Netherlands women’s team came to India and there were 25,000 people inside the stadium when they played India – with another 10,000 outside who couldn’t get in.
We need to improve things further and even more people will come.
Prior to the arrival of Rob Baan there was no technical director in India"¦
WK: There never had been, can you imagine that? Important decisions in the game were made by people who did their best but who didn’t have exact knowledge of what was going on and what needed to be done.
There’s now a technical director and a technical plan but it will take time because you don’t do it in one or two years. If I think back to when that master plan was written in the Netherlands - you’re talking about the late 70s - it took ten to 15 years to get a really high level.
How far can India progress in the future?
Look at how Japan developed itself. They only started their professional league in the early 90s and within 10 to 15 years they are at a very high level so if you manage to get a good organisational structure in India you can have a huge effect.
Hopefully we’ll have the U17 World Cup here in 2017 and if that comes off then immediately we’ll have a team and we can work for four years with those boys.
If you have enough good coaches and enough facilities to allow people to play football, you can scout the best players and in a couple of years you will have success and a high level of football in India. You have to be persistent and follow a technical plan.