Wim Koevermans coached the Indian national football team from 2012 to 2014. His tenure was one of ups and downs, winning the Nehru Cup but dropping with his team to the 175th spot in the Fifa rankings. Today, he is the deputy technical director of the Asian Football Confederation. In an interview with The Field, the Dutchman reflects on his time in India, dissects the problems of the sport in the country and expresses his hope for the future.


How do you reflect on your time as India coach?

India was more than just football. It was a life experience – what it means to be a big country and how to govern it. I often read the newspapers, I traveled and observed a lot. It’s a time that will stick.

Indian football is developing. [All India Football Federation president] Praful Patel has a certain vision to develop Indian football in the near future. That is very interesting and he successfully bid for the U-17 World Cup. It’s a great achievement for India to stage the tournament and he has his eyes on the U-20 World Cup. That is great.

During my time in India, the idea of the Indian Super League was born in the format of the Indian Premier League. They want to raise the level of the game with more money, because the I-League was a professional competition that got little attention. The ISL was great marketing with garlanded stadiums. There were enough fans at the grounds.

How do you rate the ISL after three seasons?

During my time, the ISL was detrimental to the national team. We had a qualifier in Tajikistan and the defenders I had selected hadn’t even played a game. In the I-League, matches had already gotten underway, but not in the ISL. The I-league clubs didn’t offer ISL players a contract. They were against the ISL. That was bad for the national team and it was an unsustainable situation. I quit.

The I-League has been reduced from an eight-month league to a four-month league. It’s not ideal. There simply has to be one league with clubs who have an inherent right to exist. That is going to take time and it’s important that the new league has a purpose.

The ISL is a showcase competition. The winner will now progress to the AFC Cup qualifiers. That’s a compromise, but Indian football has to develop into a single league with good stadiums, healthy clubs, youth academies and grassroots work. That would be a great future, but India is still a long way off.

Young kids will watch an ISL match, but when they get home there is no club in the neighborhood to play for. They will have missed ten years of their football education. The players in my national team, and it’s probably no different today, began playing organised football at the age of 13-14 years.

Indian youth football doesn’t have the principle of providing good facilities and offering weekly competition. That happens late and so you can’t reach the European or South American level. You are always limping behind.

Wim Koevermans coached the Indian national football team from 2012 to 2014 (Image: AFP)

You spoke about Praful Patel’s vision. Which vision then?

The vision was top-heavy. He wanted good clubs to enter the game, because in the I-league too many clubs simply looked the other way when it came to the license requirements. That mentality had to change.

That could only change with the influx of new clubs, more money, better organisation and people who wanted to look towards the future. Patel has that vision. He has bagged the U-17 World Cup, but he knows it can’t end there. The project doesn’t end with the U-17 World Cup. Life can’t resume the way it was, otherwise the gap [with Europe] is simply going to grow.

If Indian football wants to progress, you can’t simply focus on the top level, but you have to take care of the entire football pyramid. The top gets all the attention, but the benefits are limited. There are still a lot of foreign imports – “top” players who are long past their prime.

Perhaps some players learned from these stars and from these new coaching methods, but in the end it is important that local players are coached and developed from a young age. So you have to provide for the different age groups. That’s Patel’s vision, but he can’t do it alone.

Technical director Rob Baan had a vision “Lakshya” one vision, one dream. But little of that strategic plan seems to have been implemented, so much so that the AIFF has seemed to simply ignore it.

There was no strategic plan to think about the future of the game in the first place. Lakshya begins with the base. Patel has done it the other way around. China is doing the same thing – pump a lot of money into the elite game and import players, who earn millions. That generates a lot of traction, but if there is no follow-up it’s all in vain and you will just have spend tons of money.

A pyramid without a trickle-down effect is useless. The plan is excellent, but you are confronted with so many states and they have to implement it. Four of five states did it, but the majority did nothing. The AIFF is not Delhi, but the rest of the country and if there is no cooperation, then what?

The alternative is allowing the ISL clubs to develop their set-up and complete the pyramid with the help of the AIFF and the AFC. A strategic plan is just a plan. It’s not rocket science. Everyone knows how it works in Brazil and Germany, France and Holland. It’s not inventing the wheel again.

Did the AIFF support you enough during your tenure as head coach? In 2013, India played barely any games.

True, there was a year with eight Fifa dates, but India only played two games. That had to do with finances, with the availability of stadiums and opponents. But one of the prime reasons was money – there was not enough money.

It was terribly awkward. India is quite obsessed with the Fifa ranking. That ranking is nondescript, because sometimes you’d rise or drop without playing. What matters is that you qualify for a tournament – the Asian Cup, or that you can compete for a spot at the World Cup. That’s happened at times, but India is way off.

I did say that we always wanted to play every match to give the players a chance to develop. It wasn’t easy to find opponents. India often played against the same teams. But it’s not about the Fifa ranking – that’s fooling yourself. Can we compete with the countries who compete at the top level? That’s of paramount importance and that’s of course not the case yet.

I had the support, but the finances weren’t sufficient. You can say it’s ridiculous or throw a tantrum, but you have to accept it. But the development of your teams suffers. The ISL was founded. I saw it all happen and I couldn’t work in optimal circumstances.

Koevermans called for a unified I-League and ISL (Image: Facebook/Wim Koevermans)

Does the current impasse between the I-League and the ISL, with the AIFF a third body, undermine the progress of the domestic game and youth development?

Your point of view can also be different. There is so much going on, there is movement. It is good that it’s happening, because people will talk more and more about football. It is not an easy marriage, because there is that old mentality from the I-League – we have the tradition, we have existed for so long.

But the reply is simple: what have you done for the game? Where are your academies and youth competitions? Where is your coach education? All those elements that should lead to the production of better players have been lacking for years. The level of coach education wasn’t sufficient. They have to realize they have to do it themselves. Slowly, it is going in that direction.

The players of the Indian U-17 team have only enjoyed a limited football education. They have been together for a few years. From the bottom of my heart I hope they won’t suffer a drubbing. Hopefully, they can offer resistance at this high level.

Don’t get me wrong, the level at a U-17 World Cup is very high. I went to the U-20 World Cup in South Korea as a part of Fifa’s technical study group. It’s a high level with serious and good football – not all of the countries play well, but some play fantastic football.

India is now part of that pool, so you’d hope they will have a significant impact. If they don’t, you can’t blame anyone. These players have been together for the last two, three years but they have simply missed the age band 6-12.

You can’t blame anyone, but building a team in 2015 for a 2017 World Cup is simply too late in spite of the financial backing and exposure tours.

Yes, but it is better than nothing. When India was awarded the World Cup, there was a buzz and a scouting team was founded, but these players invariably have a gap. They will never get that back, so then it’s about doing the best you can with a good program.

That has happened, but will it be sufficient? If they’d reach the second round, that would be gigantic. That would be a superhuman achievement, but chances of an early elimination are also substantial.

Imagine that you are one of the 24 out of 1.2 billion who can go to the World Cup with big stadiums and seizable crowds. That’s absolutely thrilling, but let’s hope it is not going to become a disappointment that will haunt them for years. Still, it’s awesome that they are living through it. It’s a privileged position and they know it.

India staging the U-20 World Cup would force the football authorities to remain proactive.

It’s telling that Patel is bidding. He wants to prolong his vision and in particular extend the attention focused on India. Sponsors will also be interested, because the U-20 World Cup is an even bigger competition. The commercial aspect is solid.

The players of the U-17 team can play in 2019, but their deficiencies will remain, unless they get to play in a qualitative and competitive U-19 competition so that they can improve in that short space of time.

The U-17 project can’t end with the final of the U-17 World Cup. An U-20 World Cup would be an extension of the current program at the top. The kids of the future – those who will play in 2030 – have to be developed right now. If you don’t, you will have to look beyond 2030 and then the gap [with Europe] will remain.

So this U-17 team has worked hard, got the financially backing, but lacks the depth and eduction. That’s the story of Indian youth football: there is no grassroots.

It is clever to build football from the top, because it draws attention: everyone knows Indians play football. When I went to India my first questions was – is football being played and at what level? It was clear football was popular, but not of the level I required. When you don’t build the grassroots you will always have a gap.