In November 2010, Mr. Kushal Das was appointed as the General Secretary of the All India Football Federation (AIFF). Almost an year and a half into his job, TheHardTackle’s resident author Rahul Bhutani (RB hereafter) accompanied by another Indian Football enthusiast Aritra Gupta (AG herafter) got a chance to discuss with him his plans and vision for Indian Football.
The interview covers a wide range of topics from the National team and its performance to the I-League and the controversies regarding the youth development program. Mr. Das patiently answered questions that explored the whole set up of Youth Development and future plans of the AIFF. The following is an unedited excerpt of the interview:
RB: Sir, first of all, let me begin by thanking you for allocating your precious time to catch up with TheHardTackle.
Mr. Das: My Pleasure
AG: What made you leave the job at ICC and join AIFF??
Mr. Das: There are a lot of challenges at AIFF and it is my vision to take India to the next level. I am at a stage in life where challenges invigorate me.
RB: Starting off with Sepp Blatter’s visit, how important do you think was this visit for India?
Mr. Das: Extremely Important. The main purpose of the visit was to explain to President Blatter what we are doing in respect of player development and our overall vision. As we are bidding for the 2017 U-17 World Cup, he wanted to be sure of the government’s support and met both the Prime Minister and the President, who have assured him of their support.
RB: Has the Government’s attitude towards football changed after Sepp’s visit?
Mr. Das: The government is supportive and the Sports Minister has publicly stated that a lot of emphasis will be given to developing football. FIFA requires certain assurances in terms of Security and Tax-Exemption before a event is allotted to a nation. We expect the Government to give the necessary guarantees so that we are successful in our bid to host the U-17 World Cup.
RB: We also heard that India is going to bid for the FIFA Club World Cup in 2015. Is that true?
Mr. Das: FIFA wanted us to make a bid for the Club World Cup in 2015, but I think it maybe be tough for India to host that. We will need to build new stadiums for that. We will need to improve infrastructure for 2017 U-17 World cup as well, but the standards in terms of infrastructure will be higher for the Club World Cup and it is difficult to host it with the current infrastructure.
RB: One of the regional academies will start in Mumbai from 1st May. What other regions are being targeted next?
Mr. Das: We are planning to open the regional academy in Bangalore by June this year. There was a plan to open one in the NCR region as well, but we might shift that and open one in Shillong because of wider talent pool from that region.
AG: Do you think the next big player in Indian Football will come from the bigger cities or are they more likely to come from the smaller regions like the North East?
Mr. Das: Historically, if you see the best players have come from the smaller and economically weaker regions. You need fire in your belly to play football on a continuous basis and be successful as it is such a physical sport. I see that trend continuing with a lot of players coming in from the North-East. Bengal/Goa obviously still have talent. Another region which can give us good players is the Jharkhand Tribal belt.
RB: Some of the U-16 boys are training in the IMG academy in Florida. The U-16 team also is scheduled to participate in the AFC U-16 Championship in November this year. So, what plans has the AIFF chalked out?
Mr. Das: 14 boys from the U-16 team are training in Florida and the rest of the selected boys are training in a camp in Goa. Once these boys come back from Florida around June-July, there will be a final team selection and a consolidated camp in Goa.
RB: Are you hopeful of a good performance from these boys or are the hopes modest considering we will be playing top Asian Nations?
Mr. Das: We are definitely hopeful of a good performance from these boys, but this is only a small batch. Sending 14 boys for a training camp won’t help. We need a feeder system in place wherein year after year we get good players and that is what our youth-development program aims at – to setup such a feeder system.
AG: Could you tell us more about these feeder systems? Also, how many children are you planning to groom per academy?
Mr. Das: We are planning to set up 8 regional academies which will groom children in the age group of 14-16 and two elite academies in the age-group of 16-18. The boys for the elite academies will be chosen from the regional academies. Each regional academy will have 30-35 boys. The plan is to start 8 regional academies and 2 elite academies by 2015.
So, there will be around 250-300 boys training in these AIFF academies in a curriculum designed by our technical director Mr. Rob Baan which will be consistently followed in all the academies. I should also add that the AIFF is paying for the education of the boys in the academies.
AG: Can you tell us a bit more about the talent scouting for these academies?
Mr. Das: We organized an U-14 fest at Kalyani and we looked at players in the Subroto Cup as well as the Mir-Iqbal Trophy, which was an U-15 tournament. We also did open scouting in places like Goa, Kerala, Bengal, Mizoram and Delhi. A major blow, however, was that out of the 125 boys shortlisted about 80 of them turned out to be overage.
RB: The U-20 I-League has just started. Don’t you think it should be a year round affair?
Mr. Das: Absolutely, it should be. Just like in every developed football nation where U-19 League goes hand in hand with the senior League, we should have such a League. But to conduct a 6-8 month U-19 League it costs a lot of money and the federation at the moment doesn’t have the resources. Hopefully, with time we should be able to get sponsors to start such a league.
RB: Shouldn’t the U-20 League be a much broader affair with teams like JCT, SESA Academy and TFA playing. Why restrict it just to the I-League clubs?
Mr. Das: Currently, the U-20 league is only for I-league teams but we can consider including some of these academies. In fact TFA is interested in playing in the I-League division-2 next year. The only problem is that clubs need to fulfill AFC licensing criteria to play in both the I-League as well as I-League Division 2. This is needed for the I-League to be recognized as a professional league. The problem with TFA is that they need to create a separate legal identity to be able to participate.
RB: What are your views on the performance of Arrows this year? After Desmond Blupin left, the team was winless this year?
Mr. Das: The performance has been disappointing because 6-7 important players left the team to join their clubs and we had to create a whole new team. While Blupin was a good coach, we were convinced that the style of play adopted by him was not suitable and that is why we have brought in Rob Baan to guide us to develop the right style of play. Rob is also involved in developing the Pailan side for next season and we may bring in a foreign coach.
RB: The national team was disappointing in the AFC Challenge cup. What do you think went wrong? Has any decision been taken on Savio’s future?
Mr. Das: I know we have dropped to 165 in the world, but to my mind, whether its 140 or 165 is not the main issue.. The important issue is that we need a proper youth development program in place to groom players so that we are consistently able to perform at the highest level and eventually qualify for the World Cup. We haven’t yet taken a decision yet on the national coach but we will take a decision in the next month or so.
RB: Is Rob Baan going to play a role in selection of the new coach?
Mr. Das: Rob Baan is involved with creating the whole philosophy of Indian Football and he will be actively involved in appointment of the new coach. The youth development, however, stays the priority and we are looking at getting foreign coaches for the academies. Scott’O Donnell and Rob Baan are also trying to groom young talented Indian coaches for our academies.
RB: We’ve heard that to mark 75 years of establishment of AIFF, a grand Nehru Cup is being planned. Which nations have been confirmed and when is the event being held?
Mr. Das: The Nehru cup is being planned to be held in August and we plan to invite some African countries and East European countries for the event, although no invites have been sent as yet.
RB: Does the AIFF have a target in plan with the Asia cup or the 2018 WC in mind or even the WC 2022?
Mr. Das: The academy program is the road-map. The regional academies will contribute 60-70 players to the elite academies and these players will form the pool for future national teams
RB: What is the way forward for institutional sides like Air India and ONGC on the licensing issue?
Mr. Das: The institutional sides like Air India and ONGC will have to convert themselves into legal entities to fulfill the licensing criteria. They might be given some more time to convert but ultimately, they will have to convert or otherwise the I-League will not be recognized as a professional league and this might cost India a slot in AFC Champions League.
RB: Are there plans to lay more artificial turfs or build more stadiums?
Mr. Das: The federation doesn’t have the resources to lay artificial turfs. With the help of FIFA, we laid about 8 artificial turfs in India but the stadiums have to be developed and built by the state governments and the government agencies as they are the owners.
RB: Is there a relevance of an event like Santosh Trophy in terms of scouting of talent?
Mr. Das: The potentially good talents are already scouted by the I-League clubs and contracted. In that sense, the Santosh Trophy might only throw an odd player or two. India is one of the few countries to have such a tournament. Otherwise, the players for the Senior Team are generally are scouted from the national league in other countries.
RB: Coming to the I-League. If Chirag get relegated, then we may have no representation from South India. Does that worry you? Also, are their plans to increase the number of teams for next season?
Mr. Das: That is a big problem but IMG Reliance is planning to come up with a plan that will have more representation from all parts of the country. The number of teams may go up based on the overall plan .
RB: Do you think the standards in I-League have gone up this year? Savio recently remarked that foreign strikers should be banned in India. What are your views on this?
Mr. Das: Holding the matches in the evening has definitely helped the pace of the game to increase, but most of the clubs rely on foreign players to win matches. The foreign striker debate has been going for some time but the clubs also have a point and they believe that the foreign strikers like Odafa and Ranty attract a lot of people to the stadium and this helps them earn money, which is right from their perspective. So, we are planning to continue this model till we come up with a new plan.
RB: IMG Reliance had to come up with a model till 20th of this month. Is there any progress on that?
Mr. Das: They have requested for more time and probably, by mid-May they will come up with their plan.
RB: Are you happy with the way the way Division-2 has gone ahead? There is notion among certain people that AIFF was favoring Baichung and his club?
Mr. Das: It is actually been a good division 2, but there will always be some controversies. It is ridiculous to suggest that AIFF was favoring anyone. If we were, we would not have waited till the last match to ensure United Sikkim go through. However, it is good that Sikkim have been able to develop a good team so quickly. Even the performances of teams like Aizwal FC and Royal Wahingdoh were quite encouraging, despite they being smaller clubs and it shows that if you do it the right way you are bound to succeed.
RB: How was your experience at the Soccerex Forum you recently attended?
Mr. Das: Soccerex was a forum for discussions and there was an Indian Session which was well attended. A lot of people had a lot of questions, especially on PLS and they seemed to think that the AIFF was conducting an IPL style new league rather than the fact that this was a district league organized by IFA.
RB: The PLS has not taken off. You are not surprised with that?
Mr. Das: I am not surprised. I think the viability of the model is a little suspect. I cant imagine how a few retired world cuppers playing with district players in fairly poor infrastructure can create any sustainable interest and become commercially viable. However, I do think that a developmental district league does make sense and if done properly can augment the I-League and talent scouting process.
AG: With this feeder system in place, when can we expect to have a national team that has come in through this process?
Mr. Das: It will take time; a minimum of 5-7 years, but we have to be patient and realistic .
RB: Is qualifying for Asia Cup 2015 a target?
Mr. Das: It definitely is, but it is not going to be easy given that a lot of senior players have retired. It is a transitional period but we hope to qualify
Favorite Indian Player(s) (Current): Nabi and Chettri
Favorite Indian Player(s) (All time): IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia and Subhash Bhowmick
Favorite Player: Messi
Favorite Club: Manchester United
RB: Thanks a lot sir, for taking out your time and joining us!
Mr. Das: Thanks
TheHardTackle would like to thank Prof. Amitabha Tripathi, IIT Delhi for his help in setting up the interview and Aritra Gupta for his help in conducting the interview.