'Shallow' ventures in India by foreign clubs an exercise in futility?

India, given its huge population that ensures that even a small fraction of people who follow football constitute a very large number, is turning into an attractive destination for many top European leagues and clubs. 

Clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and the Spanish giants - Barcelona and Real Madrid - all have dedicated followers in the country. Somewhat strangely, people who follow European football is much larger to those who follow the domestic circuit. 

But with the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the enhanced coverage it has brought, the number of followers who have embraced the domestic football have increased manifold. It could even be argued that India is witnessing a period of renaissance when it comes to establishing a football culture in the country. 

The popularity of I-League clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan also transcends everything else though with the Kolkata Derby generating insane attendance. 

The increased focus on the game has coincided with the Indian national team's rise to 97th spot in the FIFA rankings and qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup. However, the stark truth is that we are still fathoms away from achieving the ultimate aim - to play in the World Cup!

One of the many reasons for the same has been the lack of top-quality talents emerging out of the youth system. In the rare case that a talent emerges, he never gets an opportunity to realise his potential, given the lack of coaching expertise and infrastructure in the country.

While a greater focus on the same from ISL and I-League clubs can be seen these days, a lot was expected out of the various top European clubs who have all seen fit to start developmental ventures in India in the past. But sadly, very few have delivered. 

Even more worse is the fact that almost nobody actually put in an effort to do so. On the face of results, most of them have been exercises in futility. 

Man United Soccer School

Manchester United, back in 2011, started a soccer school in partnership with the Western India Football Association (WIFA). The idea was to bring the world’s best club-sanctioned coaching program to Mumbai and help develop young Indian footballers. How many young talents did the particular program produce who are now in or around the national team framework? Nobody. 

Needless to say, the Man United Soccer School is not functioning anymore. Same with Liverpool, who started a Player Development Centre in association with DSK Shivajians in Pune. Lack of funds due to various reasons have seen the academy cut down operations and the team disbanded. 

The story is not very different when you take into account similar establishments started by Arsenal, Barcelona, Rangers and the likes. These powerhouses are there to increase the face value. But in reality, they pump in very little money and leave the running of the ventures to their Indian partners. There is very little exchange of ideas between coaches or improvement in facilities. 

The shallow approach from such clubs might work for them in terms of generating commercial revenue by increasing their popularity but they do nothing for the growth of Indian football, as they prophesize at the launch of these ventures. 

The same case with the leagues like LaLiga and Premier League who are only interested in hosting big match screenings and fan contests. While LaLiga has announced that they are going to start an academy in India, it remains to be how seen how much of an investment in terms of money and sending in top coaches they are ready to make. 

We have seen many of these academies handed over to Indian coaches without even an attempt at grooming them and increasing their technical know-how. Unless there is a thorough commitment in such ventures, scepticism will be the emotion directed at them. 

There have been clubs like Fiorentina and Atletico Madrid who entered into partnerships with ISL clubs (FC Pune City and ATK) a few years back with promises of altering the football landscape in the country. But it did not materialise into anything substantial and both clubs are no longer involved with the teams. 

In fact, Leonardo Limatola who was the head of planning and development at Fiorentina back in 2014 had said at the launch of Pune City - "For the development of the club, we need to start with good organization. We have to improve the quality and knowhow in Indian football. Football is an amazing sport. We know the social importance of football." 

But after the second year of ISL, Fiorentina decided to call it quits and sell off their stake in the team. 

The same case with talent hunts organised by the big European clubs. Select talents are chosen to train in Europe and this often makes news in a big way. But that is where the story ends. Very few of them even make it as a professional in football. These superficial stints often end up as a nostalgic 'what-if' story for them rather than a life-changing experience. 

Yes, there have been cases such as Ashique Kuruniyan who was selected to go and play at Villarreal. Though he debuted for their youth teams, he had to return back due to an injury and did not spend a lot of time in Spain. But he has built on that and has now broken into the India team. 

The European clubs want to come to the country with a tow of a washed-up 'legends' and capture the attention of fans. But does it help Indian football in any way? 

All in all, there is no doubt that the approach of the European clubs towards developing Indian football has been a lot of talk and very little action.