Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Arsene Wenger and the silver lining to India's recent football setbacks

While a number of international outfits have forayed into India without noticeable success, can the former Arsenal boss set the template for a successful engagement?

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 9, 2024 01:04:45 PM IST
Updated: Feb 9, 2024 03:09:54 PM IST

Arsene Wenger and the silver lining to India's recent football setbacksSunil Chhetri reacts during the AFC Asian Cup Group B match between India and Uzbekistan in Doha in January. Image: Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

A few days after India departed from the group stages of the AFC Asian Cup with three losses in three matches, football pundit Joe Morrison revealed a startling fact he stumbled upon during a conversation with some Indian players at the tournament in Qatar. “They told me it took them one or two days to get up to speed and pace of the training pitches themselves–the pitches were so quick,” said Morrison during a podcast with Forbes India. “That tells me how slow the game is in India–no matter what the hype and hoopla is with the ISL… the quality and standards in terms of infrastructure and facilities are just not there.”

Omar Khribin, Morrison goes on, the player who scored the winning goal in the match against Syria–a country that, at 91, is ranked at a similar level to India’s 102–has previously played for Al-Hilal, where Neymar now plays, and is now a part of Al Wahda, which features in the UAE Pro League. “Syria has players playing all over the world, India doesn’t,” he adds.  

A few months prior to India’s drubbing at the AFC Asian Cup, a lanky septuagenarian–who has coached English club Arsenal for nearly two decades and led them to an undefeated season in 2003-04, earning them the moniker of Arsenal Invincibles—watched Asian champions Qatar hand out a 3-0 defeat to India in the World Cup Qualifiers at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. “What we have seen at the moment, we are absolutely sure they are not good enough. I have seen them play against Qatar. It was a shock to me,” Arsene Wenger later told Forbes India in an exclusive interview.  

While Wenger reinforced the belief that India still had a long way to go before joining the global conversation on football, in his visit lay a silver lining—the Frenchman, now the chief of global football development at Fifa, the sport’s governing body, was in Bhubaneswar in November to inaugurate the AIFF-Fifa football academy. The academy will house a residential facility for 50 talented, young footballers scouted from across the country.  

“India’s huge asset is the population, and, at the moment there's a huge handicap in the size of a country. So we have to focus on academies and developing the technical quality of the players. We are opening the first academy and that's an example that everybody should follow. You need to work on grassroots football,” Wenger further says.  

The long-term target, he adds, is to develop football in the country. “In the short term, we have to start by identifying the talent and developing it, and that’s where we intervene.”  

The academy in Bhubaneswar is coming up in association with the government of Odisha, with Fifa bringing in foreign technical knowhow and coaches. While that, and Wenger’s visit, have started a buzz around the world’s focus on Indian football, it’s not the first time that an international football institution has forayed into India. Foreign clubs and leagues have started to flock to India to cash in on the country’s passion for the sport and its demographics for several years now. But it hasn’t always been a walk in the park.

In 2017, LA LIGA, the Spanish elite league, opened an office in India and also launched football academies to train the youth, designing the training curriculum from scratch. Sporadically, foreign clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, FC Barcelona, Sevilla FC, Boca Juniors have tied up with local academies–some partnerships have survived, but some have exited without laying down a clear template of what benefits Indian football. Bottomline: Big money in terms of licensing fees have drawn foreign clubs and leagues to India, but the lure of the lucre wasn’t enough to have them stay invested.

Also read: How Arsene Wenger plans to make India a great football nation 

In 2017-18, India On Track (IOT), Arsenal’s on-ground partner in India, ended its deal with the London-based club. Vivek Sethia, IOT’s founder and CEO, told Forbes India in an earlier interview: “It’s nobody’s fault, but a matter of perspective really. Arsenal viewed it as a commercial opportunity, but Indian consumers weren’t willing to pay a premium.”  

How can the renewed foreign endeavour, led by the initiatives of Wenger and Fifa, reinvigorate the grassroots? Only if executed the right way, feels Scott Munn, the chief football officer of Premier League (PL) club Tottenham Hotspur. Recently, the Spurs inked a three-year partnership with Bengaluru super division club Kickstart FC that will see the former FA Cup winners shape training and curriculum for Kickstart. Munn, who was in Bengaluru to see the agreement through, said that while a foreign tie-up is also an engagement tool, it will only be meaningful when it goes beyond a mere licence agreement. “This is not about partnering with someone and giving them the rights for a Tottenham Hotspur logo and then going back to England. That doesn’t work,” Munn said during Leaders Meet, a flagship sports conference organised by Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), the IPL franchise. “This has to be a collaboration where we're giving football advice and expertise, we’re on the ground here. Ours is a full implementation of the Spurs DNA.” 

Arsene Wenger and the silver lining to India's recent football setbacks Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal coach and now Fifa's chief of global football development, speaks at a press conference in Mumbai, during his visit to India to inaugurate the AIFF-Fifa football academy in Odisha. Image: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

Europe can look at India as a viable commercial market, given its viewership and fan-following. But Nic Coward, a former general secretary of PL and CEO of UK Athletics, feels that for top-tier European leagues or federations, who are looking at India from a consumption perspective, the single-greatest contribution to their own fandoms will be to help Indian talent find its way to the biggest world stage. It would bring in a marked shift in the way the global audience thinks of the Indian football ecosystem. “Which, at this moment, is not much,” says Coward, who was also present at the Leaders Meet. “Because the exposure of most football fans around the world would be to top-level professional football. And India is not creating the talent pipeline.”  

Coward believes the tide will turn, albeit slowly. A few years ago, he spent 23 weeks in India, working for Fifa on a joint project with the AFC, preparing a roadmap for the future of Indian professional football. The report still remains a private one, he says, refusing to divulge its contents, but “I can tell you that an awful lot of what we wrote has been implemented”.  

“If I look at the most tangible level to see what has happened in the relationship between the ISL and I-League, it has been a very significant part of what we were describing at one level,” he says. “And what Fifa is doing now—through the leadership of Arsene Wenger and Ged Roddy, former director of football development at PL and now Fifa’s high performance expert—is the single-most important thing that’s going to happen.”    

‘Football education’ is a term that Wenger often brings up during his conversations on Indian football. “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,” he says. “And that’s what the AIFF-Fifa football academy wants to achieve.”

The academy has been set up in a state that is drawing plaudits for building cutting-edge infrastructure and seeding the template for nurturing sports at the grassroots. Odisha is the home base for the under-16 and under-19 football teams, the state government had stepped in to sponsor the Indian hockey team in 2018 at a time it was struggling to find one, and its sports complex in Bhubaneswar houses aquatic swimming pools, India’s first indoor athletic stadium, and a sports science centre in association with Abhinav Bindra, India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist. The state has also hosted international football and hockey matches. “The Fifa coaches, who came to scout for a place, realised we already have an ecosystem here, and that the state government was more than willing to partner them in this,” says R Vineel Krishna, special secretary to the chief minister, and commissioner-cum-secretary, sports and youth services department, government of Odisha. “The running of the academy is taken care of by us, the AIFF-FIFA brings in the staff. It’s a win-win model.”

Most of the kids selected for the academy belong to the under-13 age group. At that age, Wenger believes, one can slowly start to integrate all aspects of the game–be it technical, physical or strategic. “One of the principles of the idea for our talent development scheme is–let's start by trying to get the better ones together at the age of 12/13/14,” says Steve Martens, director of global football development, Fifa. “India is so huge at the grassroots that if you're not focusing on the talented ones straight away, you’ll be working 20 years and still see no results. That's why our talent development scheme is also with the idea that let's work with a group of more talented players.”  

Once the foundation for good football is laid, Wenger wants these young players to go overseas and participate in trials in European clubs. It is part of the development process, he feels. “But to do that, you must be ready,” says Wenger. “It’s a waste of time if they come to Europe and don’t play—their level needs to be good enough for them to travel abroad.”   

It should give India great hope that a man who stewarded Arsenal to three PL and seven FA Cup titles has now turned his focus to leveraging its 1.4 billion population and making India a great football nation. Says Martens of Fifa: “I remember Arsene saying that, in India, don't start something if you don't intend to finish it. That outlines Fifa's ultimate aim, which is to help India develop players.”