Interview: "Maybe a boy from east Delhi might be the next Messi" - Paul Schuttenbelt, Director, Youth Football International
YFI is a new and improved football academy harnessing and grooming kids aged from 3-19 founded by 2 Europeans Paul Schuttenbelt and Gareth Conde.
They started the Delhi Youth League for kids aged 6-19, in January 2013.
We recently had a chance to catch up with Paul Schuttenbelt, Director, Youth Football International and talked to him about the YFI, the DSL, and his thoughts on Indian Football.
Tell us more about the Youth Football International initiative. What prompted you to start this in India?
The Youth Football International is a football academy – where we run all age groups – from 3 to 19. It is an opportunity for children to just have fun. We have different levels of competitiveness. We run our academy at the American School and the British School in Delhi and will be moving to 5 more schools in August.
Our coaching staff included 2 Uefa ‘A’ and ‘B’ licensed coaches, American License coaches and British License coaches, who all work out of Delhi mostly. There are a couple of local Indian coaches who are very good and this is a good learning experience for them as they learn from coaches have gone through the youth cycle themselves and know about developing ambition among the kids.
Football is booming in India–the population is crazy about the game; so a need definitely exists, and we feel like we can contribute.
When and why did you feel that there could be a possibility of something like the Delhi Soccer League?
I tried something like this in Vietnam before Delhi. Although it started as more of a volunteering thing there, we achieved rapid success there. The thought is similar here. No competitive youth league existed here, hence a lot of scope.
Our slogan is the best teacher is the game itself. We believe there is no point training for nothing. Young players from a young age should start playing games. I used to play 40-50 games a year when I was young – school and league combined.
Training is alright, but games teach you fighting spirit, intelligence, and help you develop your stamina. A league and a tournament are very different. Tournaments are short and last for maybe 10 days. A league has long term focus – runs for a minimum of 6 months, and the only way competitiveness develops is through a league. The teams that have the best organization and commitment win in the end.
How did you go about planning for the first season of the DYL? Did it go as per your expectations?
We started small, 28 teams, and planned for half a season. Overall it ran very well. 2 major problems which we faced in both the seasons –the first is, within one age group – the difference in strength between the players is quite vast, so we are looking at maybe a league 1 and a league 2.
The second is age cheating; it is a big problem and makes a big difference. It is also very difficult to control. I know players who have an official passport, but I know they are older. What I tell my own children is that playing again someone older than you helps you become a better footballer. But it is a problem for Indian Football. So a 13 year old thinks he is very good, but has played only against people younger than him, how is that good?
For example, there is a 11 yr old, he is too good, he wanted to play with his u-11 team, then I told him he won’t improve if he doesn’t play with the U-13 team, he had some issues adjusting to it, but eventually went on to be the best U-13 player. If he had been in the U-11s, we would have won the League.
I hate losing, but first the children need to know how to play, and then how to win, and not the other way round. We always have the continuous development of the player at heart first.
How was the 2nd season of the DYL? Has the level of competition and skill of the participants increased?
Clearly a great increase in participation in the 2nd season. I can tell you the case of my own teams. We took them out to Bangkok and Dubai both last year and this year for competitions. Last year we really struggled. This year we were 3rd in Dubai (6thof 6 teams last year). In Bangkok too we finished 3rd (12th last year).
Competitive football and good training helps a lot. Almost all teams and players are very similar in terms of skill and strength at that age.
Among our initiatives, the YFI has more expats while the DYL has about 80% Indian kids.
30% of participants in the DYL are underprivileged kids and NGOs are involved at each step. What prompted this field of thought, and how receptive are the kids and their families towards the DYL?
It is something very important for us. Look at Brazil, Ghana or Nigeria; the players coming from those nations are not necessarily from a great background. I am convinced the same is possible in Delhi. So, what I’m saying is probably a boy from Chattarpur Farms might not be the next Messi, but maybe a boy from East Delhi.
Going forward, we are starting the YFI talent fund for kids who cannot provide for themselves, wherein we will sponsor their food and kits.
Is the lack of infrastructure a bottleneck?
Most fields in Delhi belong to the schools, so access is a problem. American (artificial turf) and British Schools probably have the best fields in Delhi. In exchange for the fields, we provide service to the schools. Our academy is also open for outside children. We do dream about having our own grounds but land is very expensive; even the clubs in Delhi don’t have their own field.
I dream about having a complex of my own but it is difficult as a foreigner without Indian partners. We are definitely growing, and we are looking to see if we can send our players to different clubs in Delhi once they are 18-19. We can do that for any club in Delhi and could potentially become their youth academy. Discussions in this regard are ongoing, and we’ll see what can happen in the future.
Do you see yourself expanding to other parts of the country soon?
Yes, definitely. I personally might not be going there, but we want leagues similar to the DSL to start, and we want them to play under the same name and framework. Focus on 7-a-side for the younger age group and 11-a-side for the older age group. Hopefully someone in Bangalore and Chandigarh and Bombay can run the same, such that we become a big family. We are in talks with the Football Federation.
The best teams can then play themselves in an All-India championship, and there you can see the best players. The one who wins can then be taken to Europe for 3-4 weeks and then you can compare them with the European teams, to see how close they are.
Generally teams are able to compete well till the age of 12-13; it is taking the next step that is important. With the 2017 World Cup coming up, it might be interesting to see how well India can perform.
Is the 2017 U-17 World Cup coming at the right time for India? Or do you think it is a bit too early?
It’s the right time (2017) considering it can give a boost to Indian Football. When I came it was not that good here. Credit to the AIFF now, they are establishing academies, and setting up processes, which is the right way to go ahead. Changes might not be seen tomorrow or next year, but a lot of people are now interested in the process and the right things are being done.
Will the team be able to compete – not so sure, might be a little early, but then this is necessary. You need to throw someone in the water so see if they can swim or not, so they need to go through the training now and play competitively now and the next 2-3 years. I wouldn’t worry about the performance though.
Being Dutch, was football something that came naturally to you?
When I grew up, we had a very good football education. Every town/ village had multiple clubs, and each club had 2-3 grass fields, so there was great support to play. Football was our national sport, it was the no 1 sport in our country.
With a population of 17 million people, (as big as Delhi) it is a great thing that we always compete, it something which can be counted as an amazing achievement for us. Teams from our amateur leagues should be able to compete in the I-league.
Your thoughts on the upcoming World Cup.
Brazil will do well, but I don’t know if they will be able to win it. Argentina and Germany have very good teams and can win it. Belgium is great young team, with a lot of their better players playing in the EPL.
The loss of Kevin Strootman is a big blow for the Netherlands, as his best quality is that he allows the others such as van Persie, Sneijder and Robben to play their games, and thus be extremely efficient.
Youth Football International’s association with West Bromwich Albion.
We have an agreement with West Brom, which is strictly for football reasons. We haven’t paid them a penny. West Brom are doing it for they see the potential that India has. You can call the cooperation technical. Of course, they have brand interests at heart, and they might have an Indian sponsor on their shirts in the future. They have a huge Indian population in the Birmingham area and around their stadium, and they believe India has a great future.
Many clubs have approached me saying you understand football and you know India, so let’s see how we can fast track things and build a brand, but that is not how it works, it takes its own time.
We have a technical session in the summer with West Brom’s coaches. They will come here next year to see how it is going. We are their eyes and ears here, and they accept that this is an important step. They have said they are here for the next 10 years, and that is how much time it might take before India fully becomes a football market. It is not like Cricket where it happens at a much faster rate like the IPL, it takes time, and we will do it the right way.