Over the course of 48 hours three of India’s top football clubs changed the men in charge of their first teams. Sanjoy Sen, Mohun Bagan manager for three years, resigned after the club’s 2—1 defeat to Chennai City FC. The Chennai club, struggling in the I-league, played 65 minutes with 10 men, but Bagan were not able to get even a point out of the game. It was the first time in 20 years that national league games were being played at Bagan’s home ground in the Maidan and that only led to heightened expectations.
Sen had a successful tenure with the Mariners. They finished no lower than second in the league in his three seasons and won the title in 2014-15. All that amounted to nothing as the Bagan faithful heaped heavy criticism on the coach. Almost simultaneously, the Kerala Blasters sacked Rene Meulensteen and Northeast United parted ways with Joao de Deus.
Both ISL franchises have large fan bases and poor results in the season’s opening games. This reaction from management—resulting in the almost frantic dismissal of head coaches—has become the norm in a football world obsessed with short-term results. The League Managers’ Association in England—an organisation that “represents and promotes the views of the current and former professional managers,” according to its website—released a revealing statistical report at the end of 2016-17 season. It reports that 63 manager changes took place over the course of last season (44 sackings, 19 resignations) in relation to 72 managerial positions in the English football league structure. British journalist Michael Calvin, the author of the most revelatory study of English managers in recent years, refers to the lives of professional football managers as “Living on the Volcano”.
Less than a week before he resigned from Mohun Bagan the Association of Indian Football Coaches (AIFC) was launched in Mumbai. At the launch, Sen, one of its directors, said, “The job of a coach, especially at the top level, is quite precarious. The danger of a sacking always looms over a coach’s head. With the association in place, I think the coaches could be better trained to handle the pressure and the problems that come with the loss of their job. There are many factors where a coach needs support and the presence of a body that looks after the anxieties of a coach is a very positive development.”
The decision to form the association came from precisely this need to train Indian coaches and upgrade their skills—both in terms of training players as well as dealing with other aspects of the job such as media management, mental health and even legal and contractual issues.
The All Indian Football Federation, which runs football in the country, has officially recognised the association.
“They want to augment the All India Football Federation’s efforts in reaching out to new coaches as well as enhance the knowledge base of current Indian coaches,” says Kishore Taid, the federation’s COO.
Having worked his way up through the grassroots system, Taid is well aware of the shortfalls in the coaching supply chain and feels that an association of coaches, and active participation from clubs, is needed to address those. “Knowledge is not proprietary,” Taid says. “The AIFF and Asian Football Confederation run certification courses because we need to ensure a basic minimum, but associations such as this, and clubs themselves, can organise internal sessions to improve the overall knowledge base of coaches. There is a huge gap between football countries and India and that gap needs to be bridged.”
“If India can produce the world’s best (sic) scientists, doctors and engineers, then why not football players,” asks Dinesh Nair, another director of the AIFC and head of development with Mumbai City FC. For Nair, the education system is what makes the difference. “In India less than 1,800 coaches have continental licences through the AFC. This includes all levels—C, B, A and Pro—and all specialisations including conditioning and goalkeeping. Japan has 1,900 goalkeeping coaches alone. That’s the kind of gap we are talking about. Iceland has more coaches than we do and they are smaller than most cities in India. If you look at the numbers, we need 2,000 coaches just in Mumbai.”
The AIFC has secured the support of Sporting Lions—an offshoot on the Lions Club International—to fund and aid its two-year incubation. It has identified individuals in 15 states to work as coaching development officers and seeks to increase the coaching base by first providing access to information to existing as well as new coaches. Though membership to the association is currently restricted to those with at least an AFC C-licence, Nair says any coach can access the website to download training plans, watch videos and seek other support from existing coaches. The AIFC is also in advanced stages of discussions with similar associations in more developed football nations in order to forge partnerships like exchange programmes and learn from their experience.
With the AIFF having set a target of training as many as 65,000 football coaches in the country over the next five years, the task is cut out. What the AIFC seeks to do is supplement that by providing a platform for sharing knowledge that coaches can access even away from the more systematic education programme. In the initial stages the focus will be on cultivating more instructors to train coaches. For example, Savio Madeira, who heads the AIFF’s coach education programme, is currently the only certified instructor for A-licence candidates. Unless instructors are available, courses cannot be conducted. Work is also ongoing on another uniquely Indian problem. All coaching courses, even those now mandatory to coach a school team, are currently conducted and evaluated only in English. The process of translation of curriculum into other languages will be the first step in the removal of this barrier. “Hindi will be the first language that we hope to make accessible because it covers a number of states,” says Nair. “Then we will look at other major languages (in a footballing context), say, where there are a large number of former players and the level of passion for getting into coaching is high.”
Though Nair is categorical in stating that the AIFC is not a union, and that working with the AIFF is a top priority, he also stresses the need for the system to look out for its coaches. The AIFC, as a broad objective, will seek to operate as a platform for sharing knowledge and ideas in the realm of professional football coaching. As such it will play a major role in shaping the way football is taught, and therefore played, in India as the sport continues to rapidly grow.