Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
Sukhvinder Singh is currently the driving force of Vedanta Resources for their ambitious football project. While all his jobs were focussed on football – which also needed management skills – Singh has been able to translate the principles and ethos of football onto these projects. Values like teamwork, trust, innovation and enterprise are elements that he takes from the football field to board room.
- Being so closely associated with the sport, take us through some important happenings…
The last decade has been very positive for Indian football overall. Back in 2007, I had envisioned a certain rate of progress for football in India but I am happy to state that the progress has been better than my expectations. The changing demographics of our country have led to higher interests and participation in football. Younger population with a strong passion for the game is finding ways to participate, follow and engage in football activities. Higher disposable income is leading to consumption of football products and services creating the essential economic circle that is needed to sustain football development efforts.
- How has football turned professional over the years?
Over a period of ten years football has become an important part of the central government’s plans and hence we have seen stronger intents in the U-17 World Cup project as well as the Sports Ministry’s continuous efforts for football in different forms. There have been new investors in football who have pumped in the much needed resources to develop the game in form of new clubs, academies, projects and events.
There has been a significant improvement in professionalism at various levels. This not only includes the federation but also the existing and newer stakeholders who have come to the party. I look at certain key parameters to analyse and compare the progress – administration, technical capabilities, grassroots and youth, the league and the national team performance.
- Could you shed some light on the decade gone by and how there is progress in various aspects to uplift the sport in different ways?
In 2007 the headquarters of the All India Football Federation in New Delhi came into existence. That decision supported by the FIFA ‘Goal’ project was a very important event that turned the AIFF into a professionally managed organisation. Now the administrative body has a stronger structure and higher number of dedicated professionals employed. The resource available with the federation has more than tripled and that has allowed the apex body to undertake more projects. Going forward, the federation has an opportunity to integrate much more with the government and the Sports Authority of India in order to focus on infrastructure and broad basing the sport into the deeper parts of the country.
There has been a growing focus on technical development at coaching and grassroots level. This has led to an increase in qualified coaches and instructors who are finding and creating more opportunities to implement football programmes and exploring newer frontiers.
- What do you desire for football in the coming decade?
My desire for the next decade is to see the younger generation getting involved in coaching as a specialised subject and practicing their skills at the grassroots with a long term vision. Also, I believe that while we have relied on foreign expertise at the national team level there has
to be a sincere effort
to groom a set of Indian coaches out of which we find an able one to take up the national team job.
- The league has always been the mother of controversies in India. What is your take on this?
As a neutral, I have my sympathies with certain clubs who have not got their rightful dues. But at the same time the new teams have emerged backed by serious players wanting to create sustainable projects over a longer period of time. A decade back the erstwhile National Football League in its new avatar of I-League was like the old wine in new bottle. The advent of the Indian Super League had a definite impact and the new structure that is being discussed will hopefully enable more clubs, players, coaches and professionals to ply their trade over a longer period of time in a given year.
Finally, the national team ranking has been a very positive indicator for India to get recognition as an aspiring football nation that wants to do well at the Asian circuit. From
the worst ever ranking of 171, the climb to the top 100 is phenomenal. We need to keep an eye on the Asian rankings as that could be decisive in determining our qualification journey to the FIFA World Cup 2026 where the tournament is expanding to include 48 national teams and Asian region will have eight spots. The current U-17 team for the FIFA U17 World Cup will form the core of the Senior National team this October and will play the 2026 World Cup qualifiers.
When it comes to Indian football every other person has an opinion about how the sport can achieve greater heights. Give us your perspective
There are three key areas that are critical in the overall scheme of things. The performance of the national team is highly important to get various stakeholders behind the game. The national team’s success can develop higher fan following, create higher aspirations amongst the younger generation, create national heroes and get the industry to invest more in football.
An effective competition structure starting from school level to the elite level is needed to keep the football industry in shape. The participants need regular and enough number of matches to ensure that the technical development of players and professionals in the team is continuous and progressive. Regular competition and leagues provide the much needed showcase events for sponsors and commercial partners to be involved.
The third and most important area is that of the grassroots. Mass participation at young ages will create a bigger talent pool which needs to be supplemented with decent playing conditions and right coaching methods. The engagement of the kids as young as U-6 is important to develop better players, good citizens of the community, fans, followers and also consumers of Indian football.
- Is grassroot level development the only way forward?
Yes, that’s true. Grassroots is the base without which the youth development, the academy as well as the elite team football cannot stand.
- Money and finances are vital as well, isn’t it?
Football needs money and finances. Hence, it is imperative to engage and motivate the industry to participate in the growth process of football. Corporations and brands are serious about football as a marketing medium to connect with consumers and the stakeholders have to position and in many cases customise the football offerings for investors.
- While people are more interested in the commercial format, has the I-League virtually lost its sheen?
I-League has its importance in the Indian football scenario as much as the ISL. Beyond the I-League, the 2nd division and the state leagues have a critical role in the ecosystem. For me these leagues operate in different categories and address the needs of clubs at different levels. In a vast country like India there are many teams that have national ambitions but still cannot be a part of the high spending ISL. I-League will act as the bridge for the clubs that have development motive and want to realise the dream of growing at the national level. My wish is to see at least 60 teams playing round the year in ISL, League 1 and League 2 in the national circuit every year.
- The way forward…
The restructured league system is the first step towards maximum participation of the teams in three different tiers. Season 2017-18 seems to be a stop-gap season, but I am hopeful that the next edition will have things a lot more organised and predictable for teams and players.
- Performance of Goa in the sport has drastically dropped. It is a challenging time for the sport in Goa? How can this be undone?
Once regarded as the most active state in football organisation, one feels that things are changing. The stakeholders are many but busy with their own objectives and short term targets. There isn’t any unified vision that one can see. Goa needs a football policy that will create this vision and establish a method to implement the policy.
I have known many Goan players and it’s easy to gauge the lack of intensity as compared to their counterparts in other parts of the country especially the North-East and Punjab. Sadly, the privileges are not leveraged, but are breeding complacency. We at Sesa Football Academy are bringing in a competitiveness factor by scouting players from different parts of the country and Africa. We now have more than 50 per cent players in the academy from Goa but have been able to create more diversity with the players from outside.
Lastly, neither the coaching fraternity nor the players are looking at gaining exposures beyond Goa. For coaches there is a constant need to learn and upgrade. As a solution the coaching education needs to be taken seriously and experts from across the country and globe need to be brought in.
(Sukhvinder Singh will be speaking at MOG, Pilerne on July 2 at 11 a.m. Open to all.)