Game on

Sibi Arasu | Updated on August 27, 2014 Published on June 06, 2014

Fresh arrivals. A practice session at the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur   -  Sushanta Patronobish

Young talent at the FCBEscola in Gurgaon

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It’s not just about supporting Arsenal or Liverpool anymore. Brick by brick, India is finally building its own football future too

For Vedant Khanna, the eight-year-old son of Puneet and Anju Khanna, football is already a way of life. Every other day, his parents drive him up and down 50km from their residence in Dwarka to the Conscient Football FCBEscola training centre in Shivaji College, near Raja Garden in Delhi. “We have realised that Vedant has had what we like to think of as ‘something special’ since he was a toddler,” says Puneet Khanna, a retired army man who now works as a private helicopter pilot. “We want to provide him the best opportunities to improve on his skills. And starting at a young age prepares the ground for the future. While we end up spending a lot of time and over ₹60,000 a year on his training alone, we feel the investment is worth it.”

A decade ago, most parents like Khanna, who are this committed to their child’s sporting abilities in a ‘one-sport country’ like India, would have put their wards through the rigours of cricket instead. This is not the case anymore. With top training academies, an ever-increasing focus on football and the development of young talent, the game, it would seem, has finally turned a corner.

Across the country, especially in regions where there is great interest in football, training centres set up by international and local clubs are laying the groundwork for a successful Indian footballing future. At last count, at least seven European and one Latin American club — Barcelona FC (which runs the FCBEscola program Vedant is enrolled in), Arsenal, Liverpool FC, Inter Milan, Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers and Boca Juniors from Argentina, among others — had expressed interest or set up academies here. Fees range from ₹36,000 to ₹4.5 lakh. Apart from this, clubs in the I-League (or Indian league) are also getting into the act, and so are potential participants of the upcoming Indian Super League; all these clubs are expected to have an international-standard grassroots football program in the region they are based in, if they are to retain their franchise.

Bengaluru FC, who won the championship in their debut season at the I-League this year, is also identifying and nurturing talent. “The biggest problem in India is that players start too late, and most don’t get the right sort of nutrition,” says Richard Hood, head of their youth development program. “At our club, the focus is on getting cumulative hours of development when the players are between the ages of five and 19 and not trying to cram the hours together in the 14-16 window. In our first year as a club, we’ve started training programs for players under nine, 11, 13, 15 and 17-19, providing everything one expects from an elite player set-up. It’s a matter of time before our boys showcase the kind of ball skills and physical competence that we see in advanced football cultures in Asia and across the world.”

Robin Singh, 24, who plays as a striker for Bengaluru FC and for the national team, is a product of a similar system, albeit the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur. “I chose football over cricket, primarily because my grandfather had played the game for India in the ’60s, and I’ve always loved football more,” he says. “It was due to my training at TFA that I got to represent East Bengal, then Bengaluru FC and India. But the systems now are more professional. Sometimes I wish I was 10 years younger because the next generation of players have access to better infrastructure and training.”

Back in Delhi at the FCBEscola, Tarun Chaudhry, COO of Conscient football, is confident that the external inputs they receive from the European football giant’s trainers will spawn a new breed of Indian players. “Around 400 kids have enrolled in our programs in the last four years. We take pride in our system-based approach where we concentrate on individual ball skills as well as on building a team player,” says Chaudhry. And for people like Khanna who are putting their children through the system in the hope of a successful footballing career, it is one step at a time. “I don’t know about the future but I’m confident Vedant will keep improving. At the same time, I don’t want him to feel burdened or bored,” he says, “My wife and I have decided that whichever way it goes, we’re in it for the long run.”

Published on June 06, 2014
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