The visible emotions surrounding the game of football in India are overarching and vivid. However, the same cannot be said about the efforts that are put in place for infrastructural growth. While the country loves to worship its footballing superstars, there's still no crystalline path for aspiring youngsters to follow and become established footballers.
Whether one wants to be a doctor, engineer, or even a writer, there's a well-established roadmap for achieving those goals. However, the path to becoming a footballer in this country is a pretty daunting and ghastly one. While the glitz and glamor at the top might have grown exponentially over the years, grassroots development in the country has dished out a step-motherly approach by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
This is the gap that India Khelo Football (IKF) is trying to bridge with its initiatives and trials.
What is India Khelo Football?
Led by part-time corporate brass hats and full-time football enthusiasts, IKF is a non-profit organization who is pioneering the crusade to democratize the football scouting process in the country.
As perfectly encapsulated by IKF's founding member Hitesh Joshi, this people-led movement aims to spot talent from the grassroots level and then provide these players with an opportunity, in a very transparent and democratic manner, to be monitored and roped in by I-League and Indian Super League clubs.
Why did India Khelo Football come into existence? In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Hitesh responded:
"I was a footballer myself, although not a professional one. In order to achieve the dream of becoming a professional player, I started my own club and academy with my friends. However, after interacting with the parents of students who visited our academy, I realized that the problems and queries that I faced when I was young and wanted to be a football, still persisted."
"We realized that the reason why these problems persist is because there is no structured career path for kids who want to take up football as a profession. Hence, many parents shy away from letting their kids pursue this career."
Without the lack of promotion and relegation between the ISL and the I-League, the Indian footballing pyramid is crooked right at the top. However, the conditions at the base could possibly be considered worse. The IKF project head revealed:
"Because there is no integration between grassroots and professional football in India there is no structured path. Only a handful of states have grassroots structures in place. If there is no system, then how can aspiring footballers come up through such states and get scouted?"
A lot of the grassroots initiatives are nothing more than ticking the boxes as they fail to guide the players towards a professional career in football. However, since 2020, India Khelo Football have started their own marquee trial, the first of its kind in the country.
In the first season, which ran till 2021, the trials were hosted across 17 cities and close to 3,000 aspiring footballers participated.
What is the targeted age group that IKF is scouting? Hitesh replied:
"Since the last two seasons, we are currently working in the age group of 13 to 17 year olds. Our idea is that we must be able to provide meaningful and tangible opportunities to kids who come up through our system. Such opportunities include ISL and I-League clubs who are ready to take these players on board in their player development program. Below this age group, there is still a lack of clarity."
Furthermore, out of all the participants, around 20 finalists were selected for trials with ISL and I-League clubs. But most importantly, seven youngsters who have shown the utmost potential have been selected to travel to Spain for trials free of cost in November-December 2022. IKF believes that even if the kids fail to impress with professional clubs abroad, the experience they'll garner in Spain will help them for ages.
Aaran Pilot is a goalkeeper from Delhi who made the cut and will be traveling to Spain for the trials in a few months time. The 15-year-old in a media statement said:
"Since the national trials, I have been reached out by various ISL clubs like Hyderabad Football Club, Minerva Football Club, and Goa Football Club, to join them for training and trials. While I am heart-filled with these opportunities, I am looking forward to international trials in Spain to further showcase and refine my skills."
India Khelo Football returns with Season 2 of the trials and is gunning towards developing the footballing ecosystem
After receiving positive responses in the first season, the organization has kicked off its second edition of the trial at the fag end of July. The event has been expanded to 24 cities this year and boys and girls from the age group of 12 to 16 can participate in the trials by just registering for a fee of ₹250.
Furthermore, Hitesh disclosed that the footballing platform has also planned for a few more programs for a wholesome development of the Indian footballing ecosystem. IKF has tied up with The Professional Football Scouts Association (PFSA), the world's leading provider of accredited scouting courses, to create a scouting ecosystem from scratch in the country.
For Hitesh and IKF, the first step is to create a network of 200 trained scouts across India and then bring in Premier League scouts to impart their practical knowledge.
Newly-elected AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey, in his inaugural media address, spoke in detail about the need for an elaborate grassroots setup in the country. Hitesh lauded the former Mohun Bagan and East Bengal custodian's words and vision.
Are their plans for IKF to join hands with the Indian footballing federation in the near future? The IKF spokesperson told Sportskeeda:
"When I read his [Kalyan Chaubey's] interview, it felt like one of us were talking. Of course, he has been a player himself so he understands the pain better. We have our plans to connect with the federation and see if our initial setup can help them. In that regard, we have former senior vice-president Subrata Dutta who has come onboard. We haven't made that move yet but we are definitely open."
India Khelo Football aiming to provide the elusive "chance" to every budding footballer
For Hitesh and the entirety of IKF, the goal is to bridge the lack of opportunities or chances that the previous generation of aspiring footballers have faced.
"Being at this stage of my life, my motivation is that I don't want future generations to regret that they can't become professional footballers due to lack of opportunities or chances like we did. If one doesn't get ahead based on their skills, that is still acceptable," he averred.
For a long time, India has been touted as the "sleeping giants" when it comes to football. However, the ground reality is starkly in contrast to the romantic narrative. A raw talent pool doesn't ensure a footballing superpower if the right facilities and infrastructure aren't provided.
The country has miles to go before it can even dream of joining the big leagues. But India Khelo Football, motivated by their love for the game, is chalking down a structure in the country that could eventually prove to be far from just a flash in the pan.