Football is one of the fastest growing sports in India today. Over the last decade, European football has grown in prominence among the youth of the country and over the last year, we saw the I-League achieving record crowds and India winning the rights to host the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017.
One of the names who has been working tirelessly to develop the game in the country is Dr Shaji Prabhakaran, the Regional Development Officer for FIFA in South and Central Asia.
Sportskeeda recently had the pleasure to talk to him about the issues facing Indian football and the future of the game in the country. Excerpts:
At what age did you start getting interested in the game of football?
I am very fortunate to be brought up in a place where football was the main sport and the main football field was just a 200 meters away from home. From the age of 8-9, I started playing football but at that time (1980s) we did not had the opportunity to experience any form of organised training or coaching because there was nothing like training or coaching existed in that part of India. But in school I played volleyball and cricket because at that time football was not popular in my school except occasional matches.
However, by the time I was 15 years old I started playing for our local teagarden club in Dooars area of West Bengal. From that point of time only thing I wanted in life was football and I feel extremely blessed that football has become an integral part of my life and I have the opportunity to serve football.
In older days, it must have been very difficult to follow football in India. What were your experiences?
For me, radio was a popular medium to follow Indian football at that time, but it was mostly about Kolkata football. I followed FIFA World Cup 1986 as well through radio only. The first live match in television I saw was European Cup finals in 1988.
I will not say it was difficult because most of my focus was in playing football and following local teams. During that time, print media coverage of local football was excellent and that way we could follow what we wanted. Today things have changed and following something means having access to real time information and digital media makes all possible.
No doubt due to this explosion of digital media and satellite channels, there is significantly higher following of international football than Indian football.
What do you think is the biggest problem for football in India today?
There are no big problems as such but there are only challenges. Football is a highly competitive global sport and India has the potential to become the top football playing nation. The positive thing is that AIFF has initiated number of development projects in last three years to seriously address the gaps but we all need to understand that development is a process and it takes time to see the results on ground and during this journey each of us need to be patient and must be fully behind these projects with 100% support. It is very important for every stakeholder to come together and work as a team to take football to the top.
What changes are necessary to take Indian football forward?
I can clearly state that AIFF is in the final stages of completing and launching its strategic plan and I am sure this document will clearly specify goals, objectives and milestones Indian football should achieve in specific areas.
Do you think we can develop a footballing culture in our country?
Yes, of course. The fact is that football in India is one of the fastest growing sports and my personal assessment is that among youth football is going to be number one sport by 2017 in India. However, this situation is a challenging one at the same time because these aspiring youths needs to have the opportunity at the local level to engage with the game, otherwise it will be difficult to sustain their passion in football.
The fastest way I see this engagement can happen is through school football and here government has to play its role and do its bit. Today, government policies don’t support and encourage sports in schools and as a priority this needs to change not because of sport/ football only but because of better India. At present government and school sports only promotes competitive sports (whatever little) and very little is targeted towards whole population of the school. Which is not only hindrance to promoting sports culture but also in creating a healthy society.
In next few years time, definitely football club culture will thrive in India and many cities will have vibrant football clubs where these youths will have tremendous opportunity to engage with. When this mass mobilisation will happen through multiple engagement points and development programmes (grassroots/school football/clubs, youth competitions/events, success of teams at local level, leagues, national teams, etc. ), there’s every possibility that India will start experiencing similar atmosphere that which exist in many popular football playing nations. I am very optimistic in my living time we will witness a footballing culture in India.
With Bengaluru FC’s success this I-League this season and increasing corporate interest in the I-League, do you think such a thing is good for Indian football?
Bengaluru FC entry to I-League is the best thing that has happened to the top league in India and in the debut year Bengaluru winning the title is an icing on the cake. AIFF deserves all credit for providing opportunity to big corporate like JSW to be part of Indian football and with the success of Jindal’s, I am sure more corporate will be interested to join and write a new chapter for Indian football.
It’s great to see bids for new teams are already out and it would be great to see few more new teams and if Delhi becomes the part of this development then it would give a great joy and happiness to football fans from India’s capital city.
Do you think India can host the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017 successfully?
No doubt about it.
How much of a factor will hosting the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017 be in taking football to the next level in India?
Hosting of FIFA U17 World Cup 2017 gives a great focus to India in shaping most of its development programmes towards it and this development event also gives a clear cut goal in front of Indian football. Further this global FIFA event gives a great opportunity to all the stakeholders to come together and work with a common goal and this way Indian football will be able to establish a very robust development pathways in every element of football in India. I am very confident that U17 World Cup will be hugely successful in many ways.
Which country in South Asia has improved the most when it comes to developing a football culture over the last decade in your opinion?
I don’t want to talk about any particular country in South Asia but every country in South Asia is seriously working for the development of football and each of these countries have its own challenges. In the years to come South Asia will emerge stronger in football and don’t forget in few countries of this region football is already the number one sport.
Can you tell us something about FutFire Sports and Football Kheelo Foundation?
Both are closed chapters for me since both of these organisations are no longer in existence. I only want to say that it was a great learning experience managing these football entities.