It’s high time now…
My roots lie somewhere in eastern part of the multicultural, colourful democracy called India. The primary language spoken there being Bengali – a community, who live and die, watching and discussing football. A Brazil vs Argentina world cup match will bring this entire city of Kolkata to a halt. And that’s not funny, considering this major hub in eastern India houses a population over five million. Hence, in a rarest of rare visit to Asia, Diego Maradona did visit this city – Kolkata.
That ‘somewhere’ (where my roots lie) happens to be a tiny industrial town, 250kms away from Kolkata, by the name of Jamshedpur (Jampot to the localites). My growing years (80s) soccer diet restricted to watching on black and white tv, once every four years – the World Cups. Oh yes! every sunday evening at 4:00pm, on the single channel national television, there used to be a ‘World of Sport’ program, showcasing clippings of goals across European leagues.
With such constrained backdrops, I could never stop admiring the ex-Tata (India’s largest conglomerate) honchos, Russi Mody and Aditya Kashyap – people responsible for introducing people of Jamshedpur (and indeed, India) to viewing quality soccer inside a stadium. The Tata Steel Super Soccer series concept got Sau Paolo (Brasil), Bochum XI (Germany) and PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) play Indian teams on our soil.
The PSV catch was the biggest, since just after 1990 world cup, the names of Gerald Vanenberg, Hans Van Bruekelen and Gheorghe Popescu were fresh in minds. Their legendary coach Bobby Robson landed on our soil hoping to learn something from Indian soccer (a bit of news I could only chuckle at, more for Robson’s ignorance). PSV thrashed India XI 7-0 and 8-1, and by the end of the tour Robson was ecstatic that the bearded lanky Indian skipper, Bikash Panji, had scored a goal which gave the spectators some money’s worth.
Mody and Kashyap were also the pioneers behind India’s first football breeding academy with world class facilities, infrastructure, lodging and international tours. Tata Football Academy didn’t just fulfill dreams, but they also built careers. The U-15 TFA XI would make headlines in tournaments in Europe, but somehow, the same boys would fizz out the moment they turn 18. The reason lay in the TFA salaries – enough to sustain a decent living, but meagre in comparison to the largese amounts offered by Kolkata clubs in luring players. The academy which was conceptualized with a dream of taking India into a world cup, soon became cheap fodder for the clubs who were looking for readymade footballers. Somewhere between this, Indian football got and still gets killed.
Deprived of sporting success at international level, Indians got into the act of making demi-gods out of their local club footballers. The clubs never got challenged beyond buying a striker from Africa or Middle East – anyone who came in cheap, could run for 90 mins and had more power than Indians, would fit the bill. The Indian players never got challenged beyond winning club matches. Any international match featuring India XI was a collection of club players, who would fail to recognize each other even on the pitch. The FIFA ranking which hovered around 110, fifteen years ago (the highest I saw was 98), is now hovering around 150. The only sprinkling of international success coming from one club, East Bengal, winning Asean cup in 2003 and some good one-off results in Asian Champions league, at the turn of the century.
Around the time when PSV were touring India, Japan was busy conceptualizing their J-league, finally kicking off in 1993 with fifty thousand fans in the opening match. Nine years later they were playing in world cup 2002 pre-quarters (a feat which they repeated in 2010) and till today are consistently amongst the top two teams in Asia in all competitions. In sharp contrast, till ten years ago, India would win the SAF (South Asian Federation) tournament with ease; five years ago they got beaten in finals or semis. Today, qualifying for semis is becoming a headache in a tournament consisting of teams ranked outside top 125 nations.
Most of our current failing is due to a rigid mindset that Indians can’t run for 90 mins, lack power, body size and technique. I disagree. Hockey as a sport requires equal stamina, power. Yet India and South Korea are almost similarly ranked at hockey, so why not soccer? Or China, with similar body structures is much better than India in soccer.
Soccer as a sport has more potential than the local heart throb – cricket. Currently investors have compromised with a belief that with Indian soccer, only short term gains seem feasible. So instead of putting more money at the club level on infrastructure, on technical coaching, on youth development, on foreign exposure and revamping the management, the funds are getting channelized to fatter pay checks for average local players and marginally better offshore second or third division players.
Undoubtedly it is clubs which can and will take Indian soccer back into the international map. As East Bengal coach Subhash Bhowmick proved with results – once he was backed with top class facilities and preparation infrastructure, prior to every tournament. Today, the National I-League seems more organized, television rights have been sold successfully for record prices and football makes more news these days, for right reasons.
The national team rode a crest of sorts when under current national coach Bob Houghton (England), they won two Nehru cups (a five nations tournament, hosted in India, with national teams between 80-170 FIFA rankings) in 2007 and 2009 and more recently after they qualified for round two in 2010 Asian games. All of which makes the federation, AIFF, perceive, they are in the right track.
They are grossly mistaken though. Indians, fed with Twenty hours of live European soccer most weeks are thirsting to see some from their home boys. They have got some, but if the quality continues to sink and defies the hopes, fans are clinging to, even a booming economy can’t sustain the Indian football television rights.
After 27 yrs of wilderness at the Asian level, India qualified in the ongoing Qatar 2011 AFC Asian Cup (Asia’s equivalent of Euro Nations or Copa America tournament). With many key players injured, they started their campaign on Jan 10th facing Australia (read: Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer), with Park Ji-Sung’s South Korea and Bahrain awaiting them in subsequent Group C encounters. All the three opponents mentioned feature in top six of Asia, hence anything less than a humiliating exit was going to be considered a miracle – also considering recently they were thumped 9-1 by a much lower ranked Kuwait.
India exited yesterday night but with scorelines of 4-0, 5-2 and 4-1 respectively, it wasn’t really an embarrassment. In fact for most patches India showed that they can compete in this arena. If you take into account just the second half score lines, it reads 2-0, 1-1, and 1-0 and one cannot assume that the heavyweights took their feet of the paddle. With a close three way race, goal difference was expected to decide the group standings. India’s outstanding goalie Subrata Paul and star striker Sunil Chhettri got praises from quarters and there are rumours that few Asian and Australian clubs are interested in them too. Also, their display against Bahrain and subsequent red card of Bahrain’s top player, F Aaish, indirectly impacted Bahrain’s exit from the tournament.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter (in his typical dramatic style) said “Wake Up” to the AIFF in Jun 2007 and granted $1mio (over four years for development). Nothing much changed over these four years. I suggest he wakes up and puts a model to manage AIFF and football in India. Make no mistake, considering that the Indian market is an ever growing market for every consumable product, football potentially is THE hen which will lay golden eggs one day.
And they did lay golden eggs some time ago, to be precise half a century of years ago – Asian Games champions in 1951 and 1962 and being the first Asian team to reach Olympics football semi-final in 1956. But I will keep this for another day.
Have a great new year 2011!