THE FIRST LEG OF THE ISL-powered grassroot football programme saw its conclusion yesterday as the Reliance Foundation Young Champs grassroot festival came to an end. After a week-long camp with trainings and trials, 24 talented youngsters aged between 11 and 14 were awarded scholarships that ensured structured training to develop their football skills as well as education at the Reliance Foundation School at Koparkhairane, Mumbai.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis presented the scholarships to the children at a function held at Jio Garden, Bandra Kurla Complex in an occasion attended by Reliance Foundation chairperson Nita Ambani and Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan.
“We will ensure that these children graduate with their talents and skills honed to realise their potential to the fullest,” said Mrs Ambani.
This conclusion comes after a long nationwide initiative led by the eight Indian Super League franchises who held grassroot festivals in different cities to spot young talent. After several rounds of selecting through several thousand kids, 200 were selected for the final camp that began on May 20th. Among the franchises, Mumbai City FC was awarded a sum of Rs 1.25 crore for organising the “best grassroot programme”, and Delhi Dynamos took the runners-up prize of Rs 75 lakh for the same.
This programme represents a big leap in terms of organised efforts to spot talent early in this country. Done yearly, it might led to long term benefits as more and more youngsters are given modern-style comprehensive training to take up the sport professionally.
In spite of such positive significance, the camp itself had to deal with a number of issues that highlighted the massive gaps in the system that has undermined youth development for decades and held Indian football back.
Once the organisers had narrowed down to a shortlist of 40 participants from the participating 200, they had them tested to make sure they all fell into the right age category. When the results came, 11 children were found to be older than 14. This should come as no surprise as faking age is a chronic malpractice in Indian sports, not just football. Officials and players from many academies and club junior teams have been vocal about this and in the recent age-restricted local leagues, especially those in Bengal, saw a lot of media attention about players obviously older than the age limit playing for several teams. Only last month, Jharkhand was stripped of the Coca Cola U-14 National Championship title after it was discovered that five of their players were over-age. There is no immediate solution in sight when it comes to this; the only way to determine a player's true age is by carrying out expensive bone testing that cannot be done in a large scale.
Of the 11 players found over-age, two were goalkeepers. Two more keepers were called in to replace them; but after being tested, they were found to be over-age too. It took a frantic last-minute search from the organisers to finally find replacements but the new entrants clearly lacked the desired quality, as was evident from the last match played; both teams conceded early goals due to rudimentary goalkeeping errors.
Verifying players' identities proved to be a challenge too as many did not carry photo id's. A player representing Delhi Dynamos was even found to be an Afghan national.
Gaffes like this plagued the camp, but overall the effort was a success. This is the first time an initiative of such scale has taken place in India and it's a necessary first step towards inducting football into education and mainstream sporting culture. India still has a long way to go before they can achieve a sport-education integration that USA, China or Brazil can boast of, but one has to start somewhere. The logical next step would be for the ISL franchises to create their own junior teams and participate in the U-15 I-League along with all the top-tier football clubs and academies in India, something they were supposed to have done early. But, as they say, better late than never. With strong grassroot programmes like Reliance Foundation Young Champs and strong junior leagues, seeds of growth would be planted, and the benefits can be reaped years later as a new generation of well-trained players would propel Indian football towards its ultimate goal: a place among the footballing superpowers of the planet at the FIFA World Cup.