New Delhi: India’s new professional league will improve the country’s modest clubs and pave the way for the national team to return to former glories, according to a senior federation official. India’s I-League, named along the lines of Japan’s J-League, kicks off on Saturday after 11 years of a semi-professional version.
“This was needed because wherever there is a strong league there is a strong national team,” All India Football Federation (AIFF) secretary Alberto Colaco said.
“The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has given us the criteria we have to follow in three years,” he said. “We’re trying to get our clubs and the federation in tune with them. If we don’t, the AFC will keep us away from the AFC Champions League, which in future will be modelled on the UEFA tournament,” he added.
India’s national team is ranked 145th in the world, a far cry from the 1950s when it twice won the Asian Games and held its own in Asia until the amateur era ended.
The semi-professional league initially attracted many backers but soon ran out of steam with critics blaming the federation and the clubs, many of whom were reluctant to switch to playing tournaments in more lucrative formats.
The Asian and world soccer bodies have persuaded the Indian federation to revamp the system, tapping playing talent and the sponsors available in a booming economy.
“Everywhere in the world, 98.5% is amateur and 1.5 is professional, but we hear only about professional football,” Colaco said. “Here 98.5% is amateur football,” he said. “We’ve to continue with that which is very important, but we also have to separate professional football.”
Head national coach Bob Houghton has emphasized to clubs the need to keep players fresh and injury-free, and the AIFF has a special section to oversee the league, introducing youth schemes and proper player contracts.
“We’re looking at something like Japan,” Colaco said.
The clubs are based mainly in the Kolkata city and along the west coast, particularly in the tiny Goa.
“We’re trying to broaden the base, but you can’t expect things to happen overnight,” Colaco said. “But a lot of people are showing interest in getting into the national league.”
Indian football officials were buoyed this week by a meeting with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon.