The Indian Super League is often criticised for becoming a “retirement home”, a magical destination with boatloads of money for over-the-hill footballers to come and spend the remainder of their playing days with the hope of expanding their wealth and their fame.

The ISL, though, has some way to go before it can catch up to the Chinese Super League (CSL), which has seen more than half a billion Euros spent in the last five transfer windows. President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his ambition of wanting to see China win the World Cup.

Of all its expensive imports, it's the one off-the-pitch signing that might change the way China looks at football. Tom Byer, Head Technical Advisor for the Chinese School Football Programme Office and Official CSF Grassroots Ambassador, is in the process of putting the finishing touches on a three-minute technical corner to be broadcast 365 days a year on China Education TV (CETV).

Football in China’s curriculum will extend to a whopping 50,000 elementary and middle schools by 2025. Byer says that the “best of the best” will then be chosen and funnelled into soccer schools. In 10 years, China could be producing an army of technically adept players.

Over the years, football has evolved into a more technical and tactical sport, as shown by Spain's domination of the world footballing scene from 2008 till 2012. And as with anything China does, this particular effort is on an industrial scale.

Why they're starting very, very young

What's this got to do with India, though? Well, Byer is the also new co-owner of Fateh Hyderabad Association Football Club (AFC). Fateh, started by Wharton buddies Yogesh Maurya and Aditya Narayanan in 2015, is not your usual football club, however. It has rolled out the "One Child One Ball" programme aimed at educating parents and their children in the 2-6 age group in the importance of ball manipulation skills.

On asked why the parents were included in the programme, Byer, also known as the godfather of Japanese youth football and affectionately referred to as TomSan by the Japanese, emphasised on culture. He told “It’s not getting some coaches or players, it’s about bringing in the football culture. You’ve got to make parents a part of the system. Japan has a pretty good football culture today. When I first went to Japan in 1980s, there were very few technically proficient footballers and technical education in football was missing. Today, the gap between the best and worst player has significantly dropped.”

Maurya, too, has his vision in place. When reminded that the project will not yield results for his football club till the children are 17-18 years old. “All the teams who’ve qualified from Asia – they’ve qualified for the World Cup U-17 and AFC U-16 championships first. You’re not making it to the World Cup if you’re not qualifying for these tournaments. We have to take a bunch of kids and train them for 15 or 20 years. You can’t just start an elite academy – take the best players aged 17 or 18 and train them. Clearly, we have to go younger.”

A completely different route

Fateh is clearly not following the instant growth template of pouring tons of money into the club, buying expensive players, and expecting quick results and titles. When it became the first club from the city of Hyderabad to compete in the I-League second division, Maurya, in his own words “hopped on trains, got on buses, boarded flights to different hotbeds of football in India in search of young footballing talent.

It didn’t take too much convincing to get Byer on board. Byer said, “We have known each other for quite some time and knew that this day was coming. We’re starting with a clean piece of paper with youth development as the pillar or the core. It’s about sensibly allocating the funding or money that we spend. I wouldn’t have flown half way around the world if I didn’t believe in this project.”

Although they didn’t have the best of seasons in their maiden I-League 2 campaign, they beat a strong NEROCA team from Manipur at home and managed to hold them to a goalless draw in Manipur. NEROCA finished third in the league. It must also be mentioned that Fateh was the only club in the top two divisions not to have a single foreigner in their squad.

The AIFF’s roadmap for the league henceforth may push Fateh to the third tier of the league. When asked if his team would be satisfied with playing in the third division, Maurya replied, “Absolutely, but we ask that they keep an open system of promotion and relegation.”

Potential pitfalls

Maurya's journey in search of talent helped him make his mind up about the direction for his club. “When I went around the footballing hotspots of India, I couldn’t help but notice that we’re missing something in our football development,” he said. With an AFC "B" license for coaches under his belt, he should know.

“I see a lot of clubs just buying players in order to win titles," said Maurya. "They also give grassroots the shorter end of the stick and it is always set aside for another day.” He has cultivated, he says, the “emotional discipline not to splurge on the best players” and succumb to the easy way out. “We’re not compromising on the sport.”

Hyderabad hasn’t been at the forefront of footballing activities recently. Why didn't Maurya and Fateh choose a base with a greater local interest in football? Byer explained why. “Here we have a clean slate. People in the hotbeds always think that they know best and are least receptive to change. I’ve worked with the Bundesliga, UEFA, Ajax, the English FA and international managers. You’d be amazed how few of the people who run the sport actually understand the growth of the game.”

Temporary difficulties haven’t fazed Maurya, “If we start developing kids, the other pieces of the pie will fall into place. If the kids start performing well, the media is interested, sponsors are lined up and you start developing players who can play for the country.”

But the man behind the development of Chinese and Japanese youth football seeks to temper impatient expectations. “The minimum time you’ll take to see any sort of massive development is 10 years. If you get it wrong, you have a window of 20 years to get it right. You see developing countries like India and China get cycles of 20 years wrong. There is no silver bullet. There is no shortcut.”