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Last Updated: Friday, 30 July 2004, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
What's holding back Indian football?
With a population of more than 1bn one might expect India to be among the world's footballing superpowers.

But India is not even one of the leading teams in Asia, ranked a lowly 28th behind relative minnows such as the Maldives, a tiny chain of islands off its southern coast with a population of just 318,000.

As Leicester prepare to host East Bengal in a friendly designed to boost the game's profile in the sub-continent, BBC Radio World Football's Mike Geddes investigates why India lags behind its larger neighbours.

Baichung Bhutia
Most Indian kids have a passion for football but there are not the qualified coaches at the grass roots level to help them
India captain Baichung Bhutia
Domestic football in India is far more popular than domestic cricket, and many teams in the country's National Football League trace their origins back to the 1880s, when the game was introduced by British colonials.

Indeed, league football was being played in Calcutta long before Real Madrid or the world governing body Fifa even existed.

The country qualified regularly for the Olympics until the 1960s, and were invited to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but the problems of a long sea journey and the fact that they still played in bare feet prevented them from appearing.

Now, ranked 143rd in the world, unable to qualify for the ongoing Asian Cup let alone the World Cup, those days are distant history.

Englishman Steven Constantine, who coaches the national team, says the problem is the lack of a proper grass-roots infrastructure.

"You see kids playing football in the street with no shoes everywhere in this country but there's no development at youth level. That, and coach education, are reasons why we are not as advanced as we should be.

"It's slowly changing but until the clubs do more to develop their youth. Its difficult for me to scour the countryside looking for players for the U17 and U19 sides.

Streets kids in Delhi play in a homeless league. Copyright Mike Geddes
Streets kids in Delhi play in a homeless league
"We have 25 states but only two or three are doing anything with any success to develop youth."

Calcutta, capital of East Bengal, is the spiritual home of football in India, and it's also home to one of the biggest derbies in the world.

In 1997 more than 130,000 people packed the Salt Lake stadium to see the game between East Bengal and Mohan Bagan, whose rivalry matches that of Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow.

One man who knows all about that rivalry having played for both sides is East Bengal's Baichung Bhutia, captain of the national team and the undisputed superstar of Indian football.

Bhutia echoes Constantine's comments.

"I was lucky in that I got a scholarship due to football and we had coaches in school, but it wasn't the same as European kids get. Most Indian kids have this passion but without the qualified coaches at the grass-roots level.

"If only they could catch players at a young age because I definitely see a lot of talent here - even more talented than English players at a young age."

Today football is nominally under the control of the All India Football Federation, and its president Priya Ranjan DasMunshi, a committee-based body funded by Fifa.

India's youth coaching set-up is haphazard. Copyright Mike Geddes.
India's youth coaching set-up is haphazard
But national youth football is traditionally controlled by a different body - the Sports Authority of India - which gets no money from Fifa.

Hindustan Times journalist Jaydeep Basu says this makes it difficult to implement a successful youth development programme because the people who run football are politicians, not professionals.

"The problem is the AIFF is amateur. It is of politics. I can name people in Indian football who are secretary or treasurer of different state associations who have been there for 40 years.

"So for them holding onto power is the main issue. Improving the game is never the issue. So you need a set up for professionalism. Indian football never had a set up of that kind.

"There was a time when India were twice Asian Games champions.

"But now the power base has shifted to Japan and Korea or the middle-eastern countries - Iran, Qatar, Saudi.

"India has failed to keep up with the professionalism that has been ushered into Asian football in the last 25 years."

Not surprisingly, DasMunshi rejects criticisms of the set-up - and says he has his sights on a World Cup qualification by 2010.

"Football should be managed by the chief executives of marketing or training. This is professionalism.

Football pitch in Kerala. Copyright Mike Geddes.
Facilities are poor
"That set up we will complete within six months. If I am the president and I have a professional chief executive and coach we have only to decide policy but the execution should be done professionally.

"The fact remains that we did not improve our youth development facilities since 1974.

"Though at some time in Asian level our youth development programme gained some momentum it fizzled out because of lack of club infrastructure in the country apart from Calcutta.

"So we have taken up the national youth development programme as priority for the last eight years. I'm very confident that we have launched a mission that India must appear in 2010."

There is no doubt the amount of untapped potential is huge.

In Delhi, there is even a league - the Street League - for homeless kids, set up by aid workers.

"There are 5,000 children who live on Delhi railway station," said Street League coach Bill Adams, of the privately-run India Youth Soccer Association.

"It was not hard to get a few of them to come along for training.

"That's where the really hungry players will be. So they're now getting cared for by these charities and we're giving them the chance to break out of this poverty.

"We find our street kids are 200% more determined to do well in football."

Next week Mike investigates the problems facing India's football clubs.


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