College Football: On Resources and Access in India
AIFF has chosen to go ahead with ISL as the premier league for football in India, opting for the American franchise-based league instead of the more European I-league with its promotion and relegation. That move has its merits and demerits but this article is not a polemic for either side. This is a case for a different American system that holds great potential for Indian footballers, if executed well.
America’s football, like most of its sports, revolves greatly around the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Some of the country’s top players have come through the college system including Zak Steffen who spent the season on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf from Manchester City, Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin, and striker Gyasi Zardes. While the system has arguably run its course in America, it is perhaps an unexplored goldmine for Indian football.
It is an irrefutable fact that Indian football is centered around the metro cities at youth levels. Players from even tier two cities do not get opportunities at clubs and school national tournaments represent the highest level at which they can display their skills. Indian football is rife with stories of once-promising players who have since been reduced to penury since failing to make it big for their respectable reasons (injuries, family issues, etc). The college football scenario in India is rather desolate and it is difficult to imagine it being a source of inspiration for the sport in the country. Competitions conducted by educational bodies are treated as a formality and do not hold any weight for players or coaches.
Currently, Indian colleges have a tokenistic football team. There are quotas in central universities under football but those are largely certificate based and there is no direction towards selection in these supernumerary seats. Take the prestigious University of Delhi’s football trials for example, one of the metrics that players are assigned points on the basis of is how far they can kick the ball - a criterion that would have been embarrassing in the 20th century is critical in determining the future of several footballers even now. To contextualize, DU is arguably the most athlete friendly university in the country. Sports, especially football, is simply an additional baggage for both the administration and the players with no further consideration or thought given to it post the completion of the admission process.
Devoting resources to college football can improve many things in the sport. Primarily, it gives players a back-up option in case their transition to professionalism falls through. The risk-all factor in pursuing a career in sport which deters parents and players alike falls considerably. A player friendly system, focusing on college football will result in greater interest in the sport as young players can see it both as a possible avenue into their dream college, and a route into the sport.
Apart from this, the move will make the sport more accessible to footballers across the country. The current national university championship is a mockery of the potential that college tournaments hold. It can be a stage for players from across the country to showcase their potential at a high level and for administrators and coaches, it provides them a ready pool of players and helps them streamline their scouting efforts.
While the benefits are clear, making this system a practical possibility is a much more difficult task. The lack of a binding authority and the absence of uniform facilities are barriers that need to be overcome. A solution emerges in the form of a tournament conducted by AIFF for college universities. The fact that the federation takes charge of this tournament is important if it is to contribute anything of note to Indian football.
With adequate rewards in the form of prize money and enhanced status, this tournament will inevitably lead to a greater emphasis in the form of better facilities and recruitment by colleges on football. Reliance’s tournament comes closest to what would be ideal in terms of exposure and accessibility but its standard too has fallen in the past couple of years. Despite the potential roadblocks, this shift of focus deserves more discourse and one can hope that it reaps the same rewards that it has for American sport.