EVEN AS MILLIONS of Indians are currently burning midnight oil to watch FIFA World Cup football matches and animatedly discussing prospects of different teams, Indian football remains an enigma and in a state of mess.
A country which had played football in Olympics and had even reached finals, albeit by default, in 1950 but had subsequently withdrawn from Olympics, has seen some good times during the 1950s and 1960s when it was among the top Asian teams winning the Asian Games gold medal twice – in 1951 and 1962.
It was twice runners-up in the Merdeka football tournament in 1959 and 1964, and in the Asia Cup in 1964. India finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and was the first Asian nation to reach the Olympic football semi-final.
In fact India played with distinction in Olympics from 1948 to 1960 when it had qualified for the Olympics for the last time. On the other hand, it has never made it to the World Cup finals and since 1984 not even to the Asia Cup final rounds. The last quarter-final appearance in the Asian Games was in 1982 in Delhi.
Its continuous and steep decline took its world FIFA ranking to 173th position in March 2015. But there is a glimmer of hope and slow recovery over the last few years. It’s current ranking is at the 97th slot.
Significantly the decline of Indian football was in direct contrast to the rise and rise of Indian cricket. Despite the love for football, which rekindles mostly during the World Cup, the European Championship and the Olympics, cricket has attained a cult status in the country and continues to mesmerise young and old alike.
So what went wrong with the state of football in the country despite such a frenzy during the international tournaments where India does not even qualify. The single most important factor for the let down of the sport is the entry of politicians and bureaucrats in various Associations. They entered the fray for purely personal gains and not for any professional interest in the game.
This, in turn, led to arbitrary selections, nepotism, inadequate preparation, insufficient practice sessions and poor international exposure besides lack of interest in picking up youngsters. Experts point out that the country has the potential to produce world class players from nurseries in the North East, West Bengal, Kerala, Goa and Punjab.
It may sound strange and perhaps a bit shocking to those unfamiliar with the sport in the country that the current Indian captain Sunil Chhetri has the distinction of being among the three top goal scorers of international football and is next only to the living legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi! He has, of course, never played against them and has scored all his international goals against B Grade football teams.
He was recently in news appealing to football fans to attend matches at various levels. "I mean it’s not fun to criticise and abuse on internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us, who knows one day we might change you guys, you might start cheering for us. You guys have no idea how important you guys are and how important your support is,” the skipper appealed at a press conference.
Government must debar politicians and other non-footballers from playoff politics with the game, hire professionals including top rated international coaches and encourage promotion of the game.
Besides poor marketing of football, in sharp contrast to cricket, lack of guidance and the preference to get a government job instead of joining international clubs have all added to the failure of grooming our top players.
It is well known that some of the top players like Chuni Goswami and Surojit Sengupta were offered memberships of international football clubs which act as nurseries for top teams but they preferred the security of their government jobs. Baichung Bhutia became the first Indian to play in the demanding professional league in England, for Bury F.C. in the second division, from 1999 to 2002.
For a country with an exposure of over 150 years to major tournaments like the Durand Cup, which was started in the Annandale Ground at Shimla by the Britishers way back in 1888, and well-known clubs of West Bengal, Manipur, Mizoram, Kerala and Goa, there has been an actual decline of national football tournaments. Some of the former popular tournaments like the Nehru Cup have gone to seed.
But all is not lost yet. There is huge potential waiting to be tapped. The establishment of Chandigarh Football Academy, for instance, is doing a yeoman’s job in promoting football among youngsters. Set up by Gen JFR Jacob, who played a heroic role in the liberation of Bangladesh, the Academy provides free coaching, schooling, boarding and lodging to promising youngsters from across the country. In the recent India under-19 team, no less than seven players were from the Academy.
The chief coach of the Academy, Harjinder Singh, told Lokmarg that it has so far coached 47 international players who represented India at various levels. The Academy provides admission to promising youngsters from across the country and a sizeable number of players are from the north east.
He says that there are indications of revival of football but it would take a sustained effort over a decade or two to show results at the top international level. He said India needs several academies like the CFL and the fame needs to be marketed well to attract crowds as in IPL.
Government must debar politicians and other non-footballers from playoff politics with the game, hire professionals including top rated international coaches and encourage promotion of the game. Given the interest and fascination for football, it would be appropriate if the ‘fitness challenge’ being backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also extended to various clubs and teams to excel in the soccer field.
*(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career. This article was also published by lokmarg.com and is being reproduced here with the due permission of the author. - Ed)
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