Sounding excited, words tripping over themselves, the emcee mispronounced his name twice. That is the effect Arsene Wenger, silver hair glistening in the bright fluorescent light, had on the room. “It’s nice to see so many people gathered for a sport we love passionately,” said Wenger. Over 17 years after former FIFA president Sepp Blatter called India a sleeping giant, Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global football development, said the potential in the country was huge.
Speaking before the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the AIFF-FIFA Talent Academy here on Tuesday, Wenger said his team would analyse what India lacked, promising what he had at the launch of FIFA Talent Development scheme earlier in the year that this standalone project would help talent meet opportunity.
“You have potential to be on top of the world. How long it will take, I don’t know but if we don’t educate, we will remain where we are,” said Wenger, 70. “Our target is to develop Indian players. No country has the moral right to be on top. They do that because the best countries also have the best system of youth education.”
Wenger said the quality of infrastructure was great, a point also made by India head coach Igor Stimac on Monday. According to an official of the Odisha sports department, the residential academy would have two natural grass pitches. The number of trainees is not yet fixed but it is likely to be between 35 to 50. The boys – for now it will be for under-14 boys only though with a separate change room, there is provision for girls to train as well – will be trained by FIFA appointed Sergio Fontronda, the Spaniard having already taken up lodgings in Bhubaneswar. The boys were scouted from the under-13 national championship this year.
The immediate target, All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey said, was to aim for qualification for the under-17 men’s World Cup. The academy’s programme, Chaubey said, would be based on Wenger’s guidance, leadership and tactical plan. “Let us dream to qualify for the under-17 World Cup in the coming three years.”
The academy comes one year after AIFF decided to disband the Indian Arrows programme, a youth development pipeline that had served men’s national teams well and gave players of the AIFF elite academy a route to play in the I-League.
From 2024, the under-17 World Cup will be an annual competition with 48 qualified teams. They will be divided into four tournaments of 12 teams each. In each of those ‘mini’ competitions, 12 teams will be divided into three groups of four each. The group winners and the best second-placed team will play the semi-finals. The winners of each ‘mini’ tournament will play for the FIFA under-17 World Cup. The 24-team under-17 World Cup being played in Indonesia now is the last of its kind.
Chaubey and R Vineel Krishna, commissioner-cum-secretary, department of sports and youth services, government of Odisha signed the MoU in the presence of state sports minister Tushar Kanti Behera and Wenger.