Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How Arsene Wenger plans to make India a great football nation

The iconic former Arsenal coach was in the country to inaugurate the AIFF-Fifa football academy in Bhubaneswar

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Nov 23, 2023 11:21:02 AM IST
Updated: Nov 23, 2023 11:32:09 AM IST

How Arsene Wenger plans to make India a great football nationArsene Wenger, FIFA's Chief of Global Football Development Image: Franck Fife / AFP

The man who stewarded English club Arsenal to three Premier League (PL) titles and seven FA Cups now has only one target—to make India a great football nation.

On a three-day visit to India to inaugurate the AIFF-Fifa football academy in Bhubaneswar, Arsene Wenger, thrice declared PL’s manager of the season and inducted into English football’s hall of fame in 2006, underlined football education as the key differentiator between those that meet the global benchmarks and those that don’t.

“You take three boys, one born in Mumbai, one in Sao Paulo and the other in Paris. There is no difference between the three after the first day or the first year when it comes to football. It’s after 15 years that the difference between the quality of the players shows up. And that is only down to one reason: Football education,” says Wenger, now the chief of global football development at Fifa. “And that’s what the AIFF-Fifa football academy wants to achieve—wipe out the difference in the quality of education.”

The football academy in Bhubaneswar is coming up in association with the government of Odisha, with Fifa supplying the technical knowhow and coaches. The academy will house a residential facility for around 50 players, who will be trained for two years. Spain’s Sergi Amezcua Fontrodona will relocate to India to implement the project as the head coach of the academy.

Wenger was seated at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday, witnessing Asian champions Qatar beating India 3-0 in the World Cup qualifier. “Honestly, I feel the Indian team didn’t perform well and Qatar deserved to win. It reinforced my desire to change things in India. When you think you had the eleven best players out and Qatar was [still] the best team by a good distance, that’s what you want to change,” says Wenger.

“The challenges in India are very simple,” he further says. “First, you need better identification of talent. I must say I'm convinced in India not every talent gets a chance. The second important part is you have to put the best with the best together, because that is a stimulation. Football is learnt with difficulties that you experience when you play against good players.” The Fifa programme, he adds, will identify the talent, put the best with the best and integrate the players in the first team.

“It's exciting and interesting when I see the Indian audience watching the game on television,” the 74-year-old Frenchman says. “But unfortunately, it's not the Indian game, it's the European game. The viewership shows the love for the game. But people want to watch quality, so we have to produce quality.”

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Elaborating on how Fifa will help prop up the local structures of a country through the academy, Wenger says the global football body intends to create the first academy and bring its own coach and technical team to develop the players. “After that, the target is to educate the coaches in the clubs. That’s why the AIFF needs to cooperate with us… to develop coaching quality within the country,” he says. “Ideally you want 40 academies and no talent can escape without being detected.”

Fifa’s move to get involved in the grassroots has been lauded by renowned football presenter and pundit Joe Morrison who dubbed the initiative as one that goes beyond PR bluster. “It is great that Fifa is actively involved on the ground. Previously, it has been sound bites and press conferences. PR bluster will not get India to a World Cup; only physical activations will help the country fulfil its footballing potential,” says Morrison.

AIFF President Kalyan Chaubey, who attended a press conference in Mumbai along with Wenger and federation vice president NA Haris, adds that, “We have asked each member-association to nominate two C- and B-licensed coaches, and we’ll train and elevate them to the A level. Which means, in two years, you will have 70-odd A-licensed coaches.” The first step for India, Chaubey says, before making it to the senior World Cup is to qualify for the Under-17 World Cup on its own merit. “You’ll be glad to know that Fifa has decided to host the Under-17 World Cup every year.” The only time India participated in the Under-17 World Cup was in 2017, when it hosted the tournament.

Even before his current role within the Fifa, Arsenal, under Wenger, became well-known for unearthing young talent across countries. Consider that the early rise of legendary French striker Thierry Henry was under Wenger, nicknamed The Professor, during his stint with AS Monaco; Wenger then brought Henry to play under him in Arsenal in 1999. The rest, as they say, is history as the Henry-Wenger partnership blossomed into one of the most successful in football history.