Win by any means or build for the future? For India's football clubs, it's not even a choice, while the the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is infamous for a myopic vision that has allowed short-termism to hobble Indian football for several decades.
No wonder that the Indian national team, which occupied the Asian throne in the 1950s and '60's, can barely even claim to be the biggest fish in the small pond of south Asia today, being currently ranked 162nd in the world. And even when AIFF does come up with an idea for the future, the clubs find a way to boot it away.
The 2016 I-League season was a four-month long illustration of just this, with most clubs showing an extraordinarily shameless disregard for the league’s Under-22 rule. It proved how an ecosystem of selfish, short-sighted stakeholders continues to render even the most forward-thinking of plans ineffective.
Apathy towards the grassroots
According to the AIFF’s "Under-22" rule, introduced three years ago to aid the growth of younger players, it is mandatory for every I-League club to include at least one Indian player below the age of 22 in their starting line-up.
That this was even required in the first place is indicative of the clubs’ apathy towards investing in the country’s future. In the last six years, the AIFF has been forced to take drastic measures to protect the interests of India’s younger generation of footballers. How? By taking it out of the control of the clubs.
Back in 2010, Bob Houghton, the Englishman who was then the coach of the Indian national team, had observed that the players representing India at the Under-19 and Under-23 levels were largely rotting on the bench throughout the domestic season.
On his recommendation, AIFF President Praful Patel formed a team named the AIFF XI (later known as Indian Arrows and then Pailan Arrows), a club consisting entirely of U-19 players. It competed in the I-League for three years before being disbanded owing to lack of financial support.
Then came the U-22 rule, once again designed to force clubs into action. In this year’s season though, only Bengaluru FC, Sporting Club de Goa, Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC adhered to the rule throughout the season – with the last two doing it pretty much by default since their starting line-ups would anyway involve several U-22 players.
Exploiting a loophole
The rest of the clubs, however, circumvented the regulation by making first-half substitutions. Mohun Bagan coach Sanjay Sen did so most notably in the first Kolkata derby of the season, taking 19-year-old Azharuddin Mallick off after only 12 minutes into the match against East Bengal – drawing vocal criticism from his Bengaluru counterpart, Ashley Westwood.
But Mallick wasn’t the only one to suffer this fate. Abinash Ruidas and Samad Ali Mallick at East Bengal, Alesh Sawant at Salgaocar, Mohd. Sajid Dhot at DSK Shivajians, Clyde Fernandes at Mumbai FC – all of these players, at some point in the season and, often, repeatedly, were used as mere pawns to sidestep the U-22 rule.
So, is it finally time to reform the rule or scrap it altogether, or perhaps look for alternative solutions before next season?
Stevie Grieve, who is Head Coach at the Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools (BBFS) and plays a key role today in nurturing young Indian players, believes that the AIFF simply needs to plug loopholes in the current rule.
“It’s obvious that the AIFF had set out with a well-meaning rule but the problem is in its implementation,” says Grieve, who is popular among the country’s football-loving masses for his straight-shooting punditry on Indian television.
“The rule has been implemented without looking at loopholes,” the Scot laments. “If the idea is to have at least one U-22 player on the field for the whole game, the rules must state that he can only be substituted for another U-22 player.
“Or if you start with two U-22 players, you can substitute one off but the other one remains to fulfil the rule.”
The solution is simply in the detail. It is necessary to explicitly define all potential scenarios. “Only if you’ve used all three substitutions and the U-22 player gets injured should you be allowed to play without one on the field,” he adds.
Eye on the future
It’s worth looking at the situation from a coach’s perspective too. In a short and competitive league, with only nine teams and little room for error, a coach is fighting for his job and his livelihood. Should he not resort to any means necessary to serve his club first, even if it comes at the cost of national interests?
Grieve disagrees, pointing out that grooming of players is as vital for a club as it is for the national team. “Coaches have a responsibility to develop players for both country and club,” says the Scot. “If you develop players for the club who do well for the national team, there is a chance that they can even be sold to reinvest into the club and its youth system.
“It is ironic that clubs with less money like Shillong and Aizawl are developing more players to sustain themselves than those backed by big corporations. Big clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan should’ve already had systems in place to produce adequately talented young players to abide by the rule. But they don’t.”
A coach’s inability to integrate young players into the first team not only reflects poorly on coaching standards in the country but also hampers the club’s chances of success. Coaches who do not promote youngsters leave themselves short on the pitch, argues Grieve.
“The I-League is hard enough with a tough schedule and difficult climatic conditions. The short-sightedness of coaches leaves them with only two substitutions (after they’ve made an early one). It affects both the tactical and physical aspects of the game.
“What happens if you need to make a change due to injury or fatigue or, say, because your goalkeeper is sent off? You’re left with very little room to manoeuvre.”
It is no coincidence then that Bengaluru FC, which readily promotes its youngsters to the first team, has won the league twice in the last three years. The club’s youth-centric policies are obviously paying off. But elsewhere, a regulation which was in place to encourage young players is only ending up hurting their morale – while doing nothing for the national team.
Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who tweets here.