India youth development: Australia's part in its rise

Scott O'Donell during his time as AIFF technical director Source: Twitter

If Football Federation Australia want a handle on what's going on in youth development across Asia and especially India, they could do worse than chat to Scott O'Donell.

After all, it is a major challenge tackling youth development in a huge country of over 1.3 billion people.

The 52-year-old Australian is now back down under as technical director of Capital Football in Canberra but has years of experience as a coach in Singapore and Cambodia, and then as a technical director at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) from 2012 to 2017.

As well as hosting the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, the establishment of national youth leagues has been a major step in the right direction.

India may have over 1.3 billion people but few play the beautiful game.

“Previously, one of the biggest issues was the lack of opportunities for kids to play,” O’Donell told The World Game.

“There was a lack of qualified coaches and a lack of any organised football. When I first went to India, only a few of the 30-odd states had anything that resembled organised youth leagues.

"States like Goa and Bengal had but they only went for a month or two. Most of the organised youth football was either knockout or tournament football.

"Now, with the introduction of national youth leagues for U-13's, U-15's and U-18's, it has encouraged players to start taking football more seriously.”

Any club that wanted to participate in the youth leagues needed accreditation from the AIFF and their own scouting networks.

“Many of the professional clubs also have their own academies and are investing in their youth players," he added.

"Bengaluru FC is one of the best examples. They have their own residential academy and have invested heavily in their youth development.”

Overall, there has been an increase in the number of players and it helps that there is a widening pathway to professionalism.

“One of the issues is convincing the parents that players can now make a career out of football and they can combine their studies with football training," he said.

When O’Donell arrived in 2012, he was able to start from scratch and helped set up an AIS-style national academy. 

“When I first went to India, I was employed by FIFA to set up national academies around the country because before that there were no national youth leagues and very few academies," O’Donell said.

"Tata Football Academy [a private academy] was the Indian equivalent of the AIS. Most of the young talented players in India attended TFA.

"At that time, AIFF would conduct national championships and pay for all of the state FAs to send their players to a central location.

"It was a logistical nightmare, but they always pulled it off. With the help of FIFA, we set up national academies across the country for various age groups.

"It was a huge task and also enabled us to identify the talented local coaches and give them the opportunity to work full-time in football.

"The best players in each academy basically made up the various Indian National Youth Teams. The team that represented India in the U-17 World Cup were together for four years in Goa.

“The national academies have since closed down, now due to the professional clubs and private academies taking on that responsibility, which makes sense for a country the size of India.”

While O’Donell helped set up a national academy, he was not there to come up with a national curriculum.

“When myself and Rob Baan arrived in India, coach education was not in a good way," he said.

"We stopped all courses run by AFC/AIFF until we put together a revised coach education syllabus, that complied with AFC guidelines.

"We didn't want to impose our beliefs or philosophy as we knew we were not going to be in India for the long term. It made sense, particularly for a country the size of India, to provide the basics and structure around coach education and encourage the coaches to think for themselves.”

It all means that everything is moving in the right direction, even if there are lots of challenges to working in the subcontinent.

“There are so many different languages spoken in India and the different styles of football differ between different states," he said.

"For example, up in the north-east, the players are traditionally shorter and stockier and they prefer to keep possession and build up, whereas in the north of India the players are traditionally taller and stronger, so they play a more direct style of football.

"I am extremely proud of the contribution that myself and Rob made to coach education in India and I am happy to see that it has continued to flourish and develop further.

“In general, I think football in India is on the up. The number of registered players is increasing, the number of national and state organised youth competitions has gone up and the number of registered AFC licensed coaches has continued to rise.

"This can only be positive for future national teams, both male and female.”