Diego Forlan had made the long journey from Montevideo (Uruguay) to Mumbai. The travel through time zones had given him a headache. He still sat through a press conference where he was asked to pick the better player between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and then was forced to answer if Spain will ever play cricket.
The 2010 Fifa World Cup Golden Ball winner still obliged as he would when offered a tap-in from six yards. A long photo shoot followed. The Uruguayan then had to sit through an hour-long media session. All this, while battling jetlag.
But as he got into the intricacies of football during the interaction with the local media, he seemed to leave the fatigue behind. He got philosophical, often drifting away from the actual questions, but not without presenting a different perspective.
“In football, one plus one is not always two,” Forlan stated. He was explaining how Japanese football, despite developing a good football infrastructure and investing heavily in the sport remain far from the global football summit.
“They [Japan] don’t have the standard yet [to compete for World Cup title]. They have done well, but with the facilities and money they have, I think they should do better. They are still struggling [to reach the top],” he added, while speaking after tires manufacturers BKT inked a three-season deal with La Liga to make them their official global partners.
Forlan spent a season in Japan playing for J-League club Cerezo Osaka where he saw the local football structure from up close. While the Japanese league and footballing structure is seen as a benchmark for other growing Asian football nations to follow, Forlan has his reservations.
“They think they are good at technology. But technology is easy, one plus one is two there, but in football one plus one is not always two. So, they think that if we have a plan for 20 years and they keep doing it properly for 20 years, they are going to be champions. But football is different, it’s tougher than that,” he explained.
Forlan’s assessment may deemed unfair by a few, but hailing from Uruguay, the most successful international team in football history, he certainly knows a thing or two about what a top footballing nation looks like.
The Uruguayan way
Uruguay is a small country, with an even smaller population. With just about 3.5 million people, Uruguay has fewer people than Brazil has registered footballers. Yet they have the most number of Copa America titles (15), two World Cup titles and as many Olympic gold medals.
Although the last of the global title came way back in 1950, Uruguay’s last Copa America title happened after Argentina’s previous triumph in the continental championship.
In terms of players, almost the entire squad that represents the national team play for top European club sides.
Forlan puts the success down to the mentality of people back in his country.
“Our [football] structure is not the structure that you think you see in Europe. We are a much smaller country. For us, it’s about the mentality,” the Uruguayan revealed.
“We don’t think about the infrastructure we have or how well the economy of our country is. We play because we like playing and when we are on the pitch, we compete. It doesn’t matter if we play against Brazil, Argentina, we know we are all human beings, we are the same,” he added.
How India can take a cue
Uruguay’s domestic league may be overflowing with talent, but it’s not with funds. Apart from the top two clubs, Nacional and Penarol, other teams struggle to make their ends meet. Their biggest income resource is the talent at their disposal. Selling their best players to other leagues in Europe or other parts of South America helps them sustain.
The top-tier league is also geographically limited. It doesn’t have clubs that span across the country. 13 out of the 16 clubs that compete in the top division of Uruguayan football hail for Montevideo, their capital city.
It could be a cue for the authorities running Indian football that have bragged about the domestic competitions having a pan-India presence, turning a blind eye towards the lack of benefits it provides.
Speaking on the recent developments in Indian football where Hyderabad FC replaced FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos shifted base to Odisha FC, Forlan felt it may not be that bad a situation if the clubs relocated to areas with football-loving people.
“Maybe it’s good. You have some places in India where people are crazy about football like Kerala, Kolkata, Goa and the North-east. Maybe you should take advantage of that. So if you are starting work at the grassroots level, you should focus on these places, start building from there and then maybe get to the other places,” the 40-year-old suggested.
Unlike, most football countries, Uruguay’s senior national team coach Oscar Tabarez is greatly involved with the grassroots development plan. The football clubs in the country send their players from their age-group teams to the national team centre from Monday to Wednesday every week where they’re trained under the supervision of Tabarez.
Former India coach Stephen Constantine had also put forward the idea that the age-group national teams should have coaches that are in sync with the philosophy of the senior national coach and that the entire national team ecosystem should operate very closely to each other.
Under Tabarez, Uruguay have devised a similar system.
“He [Tabarez] supervises everything. He watches other coaches and is also in touch with the players of lower age-groups. He trains the senior national team but when the team is not playing, he will go and coach the juniors if they have a tournament around. We have a centre and we are all together there. Sometimes, the players from lower age groups come and train with the senior team,” Forlan revealed.
‘No easy fix for Indian football’
Having played in the Indian Super League for Mumbai City FC, the Uruguayan felt Indians had the physical and technical attributes to be a success in football but lacked enough opportunities to play from a younger age.
“[They can] do many things. Not because they don’t have it. I played with some very good players in Mumbai. Sunil [Chhetri] is a very good player. He could have been in Europe had he got the opportunity to stay longer in Europe. Then Pronay [Halder] and Sehnaj [Singh] were physically strong midfielders,” Forlan stated.
“But you need to create an [environment] at the grass-root [level] and the youngsters, they need to start playing and competing more,” he added, echoing thoughts of the All India Football Federation Technical Director Isac Doru.
However, the former Atletico Madrid forward also cautioned India from believing in a set blueprint for success in football.
“Every country is different. When I went to play in different countries I needed to adapt. It is not necessary that Forlan in Spain would be as good as Forlan in India as the conditions impact you. So for me, every country is different and must find their own ways [to succeed],” Forlan said.
“You are a big country. Here with six-seven facilities, you don’t do [cannot do] anything. In Mumbai, if you put one [facility] here [in South Mumbai], nobody is going to come from the other side [suburban areas], so in Mumbai you need [at least] six different facilities. Then you go to Goa, Kerala, so you need big infrastructure, money and then you need coaches,” he concluded.