With a massive population, India should have no problem producing talented footballers. In a cricket obsessed nation, that's not so easy. A familiar face to many is involved in a radical overhaul. Here's Josh Clarke.
With a chequered history that includes working under Ian Holloway at Plymouth, coaching Uzbekistan's finest young talent and taking the reins of the Philippine national team, Desmond Donaldson Bulpin is no stranger to the obscure eccentricities of world football.
However, perhaps, for the man most commonly known for his pivotal role in bringing a young, ungainly Peter Crouch to prominence at QPR in the 1990's, his latest project is the one to raise the most eyebrows.
Earlier this year, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the formation of an AIFF XI who, following the disbandment of Mumbai's Mahindra United, would be entered directly into the I League, India's top tier of professional football. What makes this move so interesting, other than the clear conflict of interest that will inevitably occur when a governing body enters their own team into their own league, is that fact that the AIFF will be comprised solely of promising Indian u19 players.
In short, the AIFF XI is an initiative put forward in order to identify, groom and give regular competitive football to a generation of young players in order to be ready for the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup, which begins in 2015. The AIFF has accordingly cherry-picked the crème de la crème of the countries young talent, signed them up to four year contracts (flagrantly breaking contractual agreements that the youngsters may have had with other clubs) and based them as a professional club operating out of Delhi.
The head of the project: a certain Des Bulpin.
The appointment of Bulpin as the man overseeing the operation looks to be a both shrewd move and a strong foundation of the prospective continuity and success of the AIFF XI. The current coach of India's full national side is Bob Houghton, who despite stepping down earlier this month over contract wrangles has now committed himself until 2013. It was Houghton who recommended Bulpin to the AIFF for the role as AIFF XI coach. The two have previously worked together in similar roles in the Uzbekistan national set up, where Houghton coached the full side and Bulpin the u17's. Whereas Bulpin's quarter of a century's worth of experience as a coach in a range of different countries will be a major factor in what the AIFF XI achieve in the I League, it is the relationship between Bulpin and Houghton which will be integral to the success of the overarching aims of the project. If Bulpin can provide Houghton with a truckload of talented individuals who can also play together then India may be capable, if not of posing a genuine challenge for the 2018 World Cup, then at least of making a credible statement in a tournament in which they have never appeared. It must be remembered that when 2018 comes around, the entire squad of 24 will be reaching the age of their physical prime.
In essence, the whole concept seems to be quite an innovative youth development scheme. It is surely a benefit to Indian football to have its most able young players housed under one roof, with guaranteed competitive football, week-in, week-out, against the best professionals in the country. In this respect, it would take a brave man to bet against the prospective Indian national team of 2018 being considerably better than their current counterparts. Even more so in the light of the fact that during India's 2009 South Asian Football Federation Cup victory, several of this year's AIFF XI squad made an impact, including Jeje Lalpekhlua who scored the winning goal in the group stage victory over Afghanistan.
A discussion of the potential success of the AIFF XI throws up several interesting questions about the development of talented youngsters a bit closer to home, particularly given England’s 2010 World Cup non-display.
Firstly, it seems forthcoming to say that it is abundantly clear that such a system would never take off in England, such is the power and influence of Premier League clubs and the nature of the loan market. Indeed, if David Sheepshanks and Roger Burden at the FA told Sir Alex Ferguson that he was going to whisk away a few of his youngsters in order to aid the English 2018 World Cup challenge, then it wouldn’t take a particularly imaginative person to picture the response. Even in an alternate universe, where an FA XI were set up, there would still be scepticism as to whether the players would be in better hands. Arsene Wenger's and Ferguson's track records for developing youth players speak for themselves. In fact, it could even be argued that Wenger's Arsenal function somewhat like an international AIFF XI anyway, with a selection of the world's more able young players fast tracked into the first team in preference to high profile signings.
However, to say that Manchester United and Arsenal's youth development policies are representative of the rest of the countries is misinformed at best. It is often the case that players, who shine at youth levels, are blocked in their routes to their club's first team by expensively acquired signings, be they English or foreign. An excellent case study would be England's recently crowned European u17 champions. Of the squad, only two have featured for their club's first string, Ipswich's Connor Wickham (perhaps due to the status of the club) and, somewhat less prominently, Chelsea's Joshua McEachran.
Perhaps then, it would be of great benefit to the squad to be involved in a set-up comparative to that of the AIFF XI? Given the competitive level of the Premier League, it seems unlikely that the u17's could give a decent enough account of themselves. A more suitable level would be the Championship, or maybe League 1, but even then would this undermine the concept in the first place – as the players would probably stand to gain more from gradual exposure to a higher level of football at their original clubs.
The concept of the AIFF XI, then, seems culturally and temporally bound to India. Still, a lot of questions are still abound concerning the nature of the project. It is unclear yet whether the AIFF XI is a one-off, geared towards a shot at glory in the 2018 World Cup, or a cyclical endeavour which will see Bulpin's graduates be promoted to Houghton's full side (and presumably other I League teams) and replaced with the next new hopefuls. In either case, the four seasons before they become India's saving graces, the AIFF XI will hope to achieve success in the I League – starting with the first game of the season away at Chirag United on November 27th