Three stories since the last weekend of May have caught the eye—and offered lessons for Indian sport. From the Champions League final, the value of starting high-quality sports coaching at an early age. From Li Na’s win at the French Open, the benefits of focused, relentless training and heavy investment. From early trends in the close-season European football transfers, the rising importance of youth in global sport.
It’s all about youth—a resource India is abundantly rich in and which Indian sport takes for granted. All the three stories above dovetail into the increasingly popular theory that there is no barrier to sporting success if talent is tapped early and given proper, usually intensive, training. If a Chinese woman can win a Grand Slam, an Indian man can play top-flight football. As the maverick yet respected coach Alf Galustian puts it, even the skills of Messi can be replicated through practice—everything he does can be taught, from how he pulls off a dazzling piece of ball play to when and where to do it.
The Champions League final was a display by Barcelona of football at its most skilled, practised level, the pass masters raising their own lofty bar. Those skills were not acquired overnight; the mesmerizing “rondo, rondo” game came from years of training at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, alma mater to the trinity of Lionel Messi, Xavier Hernandez Creus (Xavi) and Andrés Iniesta, most of their teammates and their visionary coach. And their sixth-sense passing? Years of playing together in the same team, and many of them for Spain as well. Their opponents, though outclassed on the night, had built a dynasty in England on the strength of the “Class of ’92”—David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs—who played together at the top level from 1995 to 2003.
Top seed: China’s Li Na. Reuters
The sports writer Matthew Syed stresses in Bounce, his fascinating study of sporting success, the importance of relentless, remorseless practice from near-toddlerhood in the making of Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters, Beckham, Andre Agassi, the chess-playing Polgars—Judit and Susan. Even the rhythm and beauty of Brazilian football, he notes, can be ascribed to the countless hours spent playing Futsal, a compressed form of football. He visits the Bollettieri Tennis Academy and China’s table tennis hub, the Chinese National Table Tennis Training Centre, to see the benefits of intensive sports camps.
That Chinese model also produced Li, whose historic French Open added to the remarkable narrative that has seen the country’s athletes becoming the best in the world at sports outside their traditional beats—swimming, running, tennis, even football. Li’s win came with a subversive twist, though: Once established, she broke off from the state system and negotiated an existence on her terms. She is a sporting hero in China but is her own person.
It’s the kind of situation, government and private money cohabiting, that could exist in India, and does to a far lesser extent. While the bigger team sports—football—have long received heavy funding, it’s only recently that the corporate sector has moved in to the less popular, non-team sports. In any case money alone isn’t the issue—how else would the desperately poor countries of western Africa send wave after wave of footballers to the top European clubs? How else could the Académie Sportive des Employés de Commerce (Asec) Mimosas club in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, produce, through terrible civil war and communal strife, the likes of Kolo and Yaya Touré, Emmanuel Eboue and Salomon Kalou?
What’s the best approach, then, for India? I turned to Jagbir Singh, an Olympian and former India hockey coach whose lucid, sensible thinking has been honed by his years playing in the German leagues. Start young, he asserts. “In Germany, while we were training, the children—some of them six years old—would walk up to us, chat with us, ask questions. In Amstelveen (Holland), they have regular coaching weekends where 1,200 children gather for a camp, picking up skills.”
The problem in hockey is compounded by the turf issue. “In India, the first bit of formal training is when a player is selected for a sub-junior or hostel or SAI (Sports Authority of India) academy team. Till the age of 18, he’s played on natural grass or clay in his town or village. Suddenly, he’s picked up for a junior national camp and you expect him to change from natural to artificial. It’s almost impossible,” says Singh.
What would be his game plan? “Water flows faster from the top,” Singh says. “So while you build the grass roots, you must have a good national side to give the children something to aim at, some role models to emulate. If we build a really good base but then, God forbid, our national team doesn’t make the Olympics...it will undo everything.”
Bring in a team of foreign coaches, he says; the foreign systems are 25 years ahead of ours, let’s not be coy in tapping them. Give the team a long-term goal along with the immediate plan, and give them charge of the entire set-up, from the national team down to the sub-juniors. And give them time, money and space.
Then, perhaps the next time a Messi comes to India, we’ll have one of our own playing against him.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org