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Developing Indian football: A lesson from Japan

Indian football is currently going through its worst phase. It is languishing in the 140s-170s in FIFA rankings in recent times, losing to Myanmar in the AFC challenge cup qualifiers and no silver lining in sight for the near future. From securing the fourth position at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and winning the gold at the 1962 Jakarta Asian games to the current state of affairs, it has been a continuous downward spiral. Meanwhile, during the same period, Japan has undertaken the opposite journey from being continental minnows to a major football nation in the world. The top leagues of the world are teeming with Japanese recruits like Kagawa, Miyaichi, Honda, Nagatomo, Uchida, Usami, etc.

The transformation of Japan has been miraculous by any standards. Back in the 1980s, the scenario in Japan was strikingly similar to the present day India. It too had been unable to capitalize on the bronze medal winning performance at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and failed to qualify for the Asia cup even once. Baseball was the dominant sport in the country by some distance and though an occasional AC Milan or Real Madrid tour would draw huge crowds to the stadium, a football culture was still non-existent.

The difference started thereafter, with Japan taking some concrete steps based on a systematic plan for developing football. The Japanese Soccer League set up in 1965 was replaced by the Japanese Professional Football League or the J-league in 1991. Big names like Zico were signed up to increase the popularity of the league. In the recent years, US, China, etc have also tried to do the same for their leagues. Even in India, a similar concept was initiated at the local level in Bengal before some financial hurdles and lack of venues forced its indefinite postponement.

However, the most important aspect of the strategy was the developmental activities initiated at the grassroots level. However good the league became, it would have been meaningless if there was no regular supply of talented youngsters locally.

In the early 1980s, a comic strip (Manga) was started which would change the face of Japanese soccer for good. Captain Tsubasa was the footballer protagonist of the series, which became immensely popular among the children in Japan. It became a rage with children getting attracted to football in a big way. Captain Tsubasa merchandize would disappear from the shelves and football started to give tough competition to baseball as the most popular sport in the country. This series became hugely popular even in Europe and the Middle East and has been sold in around 100 countries worldwide. Many Japanese footballers like Hidetoshi Nakata & Kawaguchi as also international stars like Fernando Torres, Del Piero & Zidane have acknowledged that Captain Tsubasa inspired them as a kid to play football.

The surge in the interest in football was capitalized on with setting up of academies and leagues to provide world class football coaching and a good competitive environment at the grassroots level to further aid the development. The corporate played its part by investing in football academies. The Japanese high school league is arguably the most competitive youth league in the world. Despite being a schools league, their matches are attended by scouts from all over the world looking for quality players for their clubs. Arsene Wenger has admitted to being a big fan of the league and has been highly impressed by its standard. In fact, Ryo Miyaichi was directly picked up from a high school team to play for Arsenal.

The situation in Indian football might seem hopeless to most people, but the rapid rise of Japan should act as an inspiration for us. Football is not rocket science after all. World class football academies coupled with a competitive platform at the grassroots level and a professional national league would go a long way in helping us achieve what a country of a billion people deserves to. It’s easier said than done for sure, but the AIFF has been showing some willingness to work for it recently. There has been considerable interest from the corporate and major European clubs in India too. A regular place at the Asia cup and being able to compete well with the continent’s best in the next 5-8 years is definitely a realistic goal to work towards.

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