New Delhi:India's football coach Bob Houghton feels the next edition of the professional I-League will provide the roadmap for the future of Indian football with infrastructure and youth development components being the key factors.
Houghton's credentials are impeccable. He played for English club Fulham, coached Swedish club Malmo to the European Cup final. He was also the coach of the best Asian club from Saudi Arabia, Ittihad in the '90s. He then took China to the World Cup finals. In between he dabbled with American football clubs.
Here he does not want to talk about setting a time frame for India playing in the quadrennial event, but he has no doubt that the steps initiated by the All India Football Federation are on the right lines.
The Briton, who has an impressive record as a widely travelled coach, makes a constructive comparison between the two Asian giants, China and India in a freewheeling interview.
If only India makes a conscious effort to replicate the Chinese methods of developing football infrastructure they can fast track their World Cup dreams.
"I see no reason why India can't match China when both the countries have double-digit growth rate. One major difference between the two is that in China every club has their own training grounds with all the facilities like hotel, gym and swimming pool for all age-group players.
"If you go to Shanghai Shenhua training ground any day in the afternoon, you will find all the grounds packed with kids and qualified instructors," Houghton said.
Houghton said the Indians clubs do not have the kind of facilities their counterparts have in China. Then there was only one stadium that fulfils the FIFA norms and that is in Chennai. There are no proper training fields for any club in the country and the only one training field is in Cuncolim, Goa.
The Englishman, who started his career as a midfielder at Fulham in the 1960s, says he was stressing on club culture more because it is the clubs that provide profile of the game in any country and they have to be truly professional.
"All the clubs should have qualified coaches, a youth team, a physiotherapist and a doctor. Show me how many clubs playing the I-League have them."
Citing Swedish club Malmo's example, he said he led the club to four league titles and a European Cup final in the 1970s, Houghton said the club could do so well only because they had everything he had mentioned.
"The significant thing about that European Cup final was that nine were local players from Malmo. And the reason why we got there was that the club made it sure that the development process was right. They had good coaches at every level and a real monitoring system. By the time the guys were 16 they were ready to get into the professional team," Houghton recalled.
The chief coach said for India it would take a while to create such a system, adding for good measure that there are no short cuts for success.
As for his China experience, he said: "The national team in China is bit different because the league is out of bounds for their national players. We discussed a similar thing for India and that is the way to go about. But we have a long way to go."
But, Houghton feels, here it is not easy to keep players away from the league for too long till a proper professional league is in place.
"That's why it is very important to have I-League in place. We have to make sure that more Indian boys play at the top professional level week in and out. We have some boys in the national team who have hardly played any matches for their clubs.
"The I-League should be spaced out properly so that the players get to train properly, and have recovery time. The state leagues should be the subsidiaries of the I-league. This year Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have taken 14 boys from the Tata Football Academy. Let's see how many of those players get to play for the main team on a regular basis," he said.
Houghton added that the under-14, under-16 and the under-19 team will be the feeder line for the national team and if all these levels are maintained then only can India hope to get anywhere near the World Cup by 2018.
"The qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup will start from 2015 and that is seven years from now. The under-19 team will be 26, under-16 will be 23 and under-14 will be 21. So these three teams will be absolutely central in qualification for the 2018 World Cup. So there is a possibility because the good thing about it is that we have got the start and we have to carry on with it," he said.