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While Indian football sleeps, its young hopefuls dream of playing abroad

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Story highlights

India's national football team ranks 149 out of 209 FIFA member nations

India used to be among the best in Asia at the sport until the 1970s

FIFA president Sepp Blatter describes Indian football as a "sleeping giant"

Dutchman Rob Baan signals hope as the nation's first technical director

Editor’s Note: CNN asked Twitter users if India could ever qualify for soccer’s World Cup. Click here to find out the answers.

CNN —  

“Theatre of Dreams” reads the plaque on the classroom door of Manchester United Soccer School in Mumbai. Nutritional advice and tactics are scribbled on the whiteboard and a Wayne Rooney portrait hangs on the wall.

But if the future of the domestic sport lies at the feet of new talent, youngsters are dreaming of playing in stadiums abroad, not at home.

Endemic problems over the last four decades have slumped the nation to a low 149 out of 209 in FIFA’s world rankings, moving FIFA president Sepp Blatter to describe Indian football as a “sleeping giant.”

However, the arrival of Dutch coach Robert Baan as the nation’s first technical director signals a possible revival of a country with a 1.2 billion population.

Appointed in October 2011, Baan was previously the technical director in the Netherlands and caretaker coach for the Australia Under 23 team. In India, he says he had spotted about five boys aged below 10 whose skills were on par with European youngsters of that age group.

Qualifying for the World Cup

It is still early days, but Baan believes with continued development of India’s grassroots, the country might be ready to participate in the 2022 World Cup. “Or more realistically, 2026 or 2030,” he adds.

“As India has just started to implement grassroots football it will take 10 years or more to get these players to the same level as in Japan, Korea, or Europe and South America.”

This grassroots project involves the All India Football Federation (AIFF) opening residential academies all over the country, free to athletes and providing education alongside football training.

These are different to the academies run by overseas clubs such as English Premier League champion Manchester United, which require fees and are non-residential.

The first AIFF academy opened in Navi, Mumbai in May 2012, the second in September 2012 in Pailan, another recently in Goa, with a fourth coming soon in Bangalore.

Read: Football blossoming on the sub-continent?

“We already have our under-19 boys in Goa and that will now be our elite academy, possibly moving to Pune in the coming months,” said Baan.

Sunando Dhar, CEO of the AIFF’s domestic I-League, has high hopes for this new development.

“I think this is the first positive step that Indian football and the AIFF have taken in the last 30 years,” he said.

Up until the 1970s, India, which has long been one of the world’s top sides at cricket, was among the best sides in Asian football and the national team was even invited by FIFA to play in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

In the end India failed to make it to Brazil. According to football historian and statistician Gautam Roy, the journey by ship was too expensive and the players were unable to fulfill the compulsory requirement to wear football boots, as they usually played with bare feet.

The AIFF has governed football in India for 75 years and was responsible for appointing Baan. Located in Dwarka in southwest Delhi, the AIFF’s headquarters is an impressive building crowned with a huge football.

Is India a sporting country?

Despite that bold architectural statement, Dhar is more downbeat in his assessment of the country’s competence: “India lacks sporting passion and is not really a sporting country.”

That surprising admission provoked astonishment from two Indian football experts.

“India has been playing football, as well as cricket, for over 100 years,” Roy told CNN. “There are so many individuals in cricket, football, athletics and hockey.

“We’ve won gold medals and been world champions, despite being amateur players. If India is not a sporting nation, then why are there so many people playing sport on the ground?”

Former Indian soccer star Baichung Bhutia, who briefly played for English lower division team Bury FC in 1999, added: “If the AIFF says India’s not a sporting nation, then what are they doing there? You have to make it a sporting nation!”

Read: Bend it like Bhutia - India’s David Beckham

Dhar defends his view and says India does not have a strong presence at the Olympics.

Referring to how interest in cricket soared after the first World Cup win in that sport in 1983, he says: “If the national team does well, it suddenly changes the equation completely.”

India’s national captain Sunil Chhetri believes the AIFF’s criticism of the team dampens their confidence and argues everyone should be working together.

Chhetri gave India a sign of hope when he joined the reserve side of Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon in July last year, with Indian football pundit Arunava Chaudhuri describing the move as the “biggest ever transfer of an Indian footballer.”

But the main goal should be for Indians to renew national pride in their home game, which currently rejoices in its past.

Beating the British

British soldiers introduced the sport to the country in the 19th century and an Indian team even beat them at their own game to win a domestic tournament in 1911. Roy says this victory gave India the confidence to make the move towards independence, which finally happened 36 years later.

However the influence of England – or rather the English Premier League – still hangs heavy over Indian football.

At Bhutia’s academy in Delhi, 14-year-old Somil, Vansh and Tannay say they stay awake until the early hours to keep up with the European Championships and the World Cup. And they all wish to go to Europe to play professionally.