Saturday, June 3, 2006

A Cup too far 
Indian football is far removed from its goal. Lack of drive, poor infrastructure and outdated training methods have led the game to dribble aimlessly for too long. But now with FIFA’s backing, there is reason to hope that may be one day the 117-ranked India would play in the World Cup, says M.S.Unnikrishnan, as all eyes are riveted on the grand spectacle, beginning June 9

The All-India Football Federation’s newly constructed Football House in Delhi
The All-India Football Federation’s newly constructed Football House in Delhi

The best-known face of Indian football, Baichung Bhutia, lamented the other day about the meandering ways and falling standard of Indian football. He said the decline of the game was mainly on account of the All-India Football Federation’s (AIFF) failure to have the right kind of people at the helm. Bhutia was, in fact, echoing the sentiments of millions of soccer lovers who have been rueing the fate of the game in the country. Bhutia said wistfully how he longed to be part of the upcoming World Cup in Germany, though he knows fully well that it’s just wishful thinking. For, it will take India, ranked 117, several decades to break into the elite group of the best 32 teams in the world. The last Indian win was a 2-0 effort against Afghanistan in the AFC Challenge Cup at Chittagong, but were humiliated by Nepal with a 3-0 win in the quarter-final in April this year.

The tragedy of Indian football has been the neglect of the game at the grass-roots level. There has been no concerted, scientifically modulated training programmes for juniors. As a result, the game in India has failed to keep pace with the rest of the world.

When the base is shaky, the structure above can never be strong. The wobbly state of Indian football is because of the unsteady base. Indian coaches are so far behind in their coaching techniques that they cut a sorry figure when pitted against reputed teams.

The Syed Nayeemuddins, the PK Banerjees, and the Subhash Bhowmiks have been caught in a time warp and have certainly outlived their utility. Their outdated training methods have set the clock back for Indian football. The game has made such fast strides elsewhere in the world that it will take India a very determined and conscious effort to pick up the threads and make some headway. Mercifully, the AIFF has appointed well-known British coach Bob Houghton as the new chief national coach and he will be assisted by two Indian coaches, mainly for grooming junior talent and strengthening the base.

Houghton will get a huge pay packet, and the AIFF hopes that the British veteran delivers. He is expected to play the role of a catalyst to turn the game around in the next five to 10 years. Indian football has been affected by far too many maladies and only an overhaul of the system can bring the desired results.

The much-touted National Football League (NFL) has become a pointless exercise, though the league has made the AIFF coffers rich. The NFL, instead of widening the scope and reach of the game, has only created niche pockets. The concept of a National League was indeed noble but it has failed to reach a wide spectrum of audience. In the present format, the NFL matches are played only at select venues from where the competing teams belong.

Because of this myopic vision, the very idea of taking the game to all corners of the country through the NFL has been defeated. A Second Division League was started to address this problem, but it has not made much success either.

The virtual extinction of many of the soccer tournaments across the country has long since robbed the game of the boost and exposure it badly needed. And an insensitive AIFF couldn’t care less when tournament after tournament folded up as it was obsessed only with the NLF, mainly because money was directly coming into its pockets.

But the irony is that the federation has failed to inject even an iota of dynamism or an element of professionalism into the NLF, though resources have not been a problem. Zee Sports has entered into a 10-year sponsorship deal with the AIFF, reportedly for a staggering sum of Rs 270 crore, for telecasting and marketing the game. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) shelled out over Rs 7 crore to be the co-sponsors of the NFL. Yet, the teams and players were totally dissatisfied with the format, schedule and facilities for the NFL.

What ails Indian football? Why has the game slipped to such a pass? What needs to be done to take the game out of the morass?

“We need knowledgeable professionals at the helm to restructure the entire soccer set-up in the country, to inject total professionalism in its running. We need talented coaches to groom our budding footballers. Unless we teach the basic rights to kids, Indian players will never be able to make their mark at the international level,” Bhutia had said.

There has been a disconnect between the AIFF and the state associations/clubs/players, resulting in stunting the growth of the game.

While the AIFF is flush with funds, a prestigious tournament like the Durand Cup, the second-oldest tournament in the world after the FA Cup of England, is struggling to keep afloat, despite being run by the Services (Army, Navy and Air Force). The resource crunch was so acute last year that the organising committee was forced to break a two-decade-old fixed deposit of around Rs 70 lakh to conduct the Durand Cup in Delhi. The Durand Cup is organised with financial assistance from the three wings of the Services and it will not be able to sustain unless some big sponsors come forward to help out.

The DCM Cup, one of the most popular tournaments, folded up a few years ago due to the oppressive attitude of the federation. DCM could be credited with bringing to India quality foreign teams much before the AIFF introduced the hugely successful Nehru Gold Cup International Tournament in 1984. The Nehru Gold Cup also folded up with the break of the Soviet Union and other Socialist Bloc countries as the federation could not muster enough foreign exchange in dollars to pay the foreign teams. (The erstwhile Socialist Bloc countries were willing to accept their payments in rupees).

Most of the prestigious club tournaments have downed their shutters as it was difficult to invite top clubs and players. For, according to the present rule of the AIFF, a tournament has to be completed within 12 days, featuring only eight or ten teams, and top players attending India camps would not be released to play for their respective clubs. Only the National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy and the Federation Cup for clubs continue to hold on, weathering heavy odds.

Santosh Trophy, named after the late Maharaja Sir Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhary of Santosh (now Bangladesh) was India’s premier football tournament, played only by state teams. The tournament, started in 1941 in Calcutta, was the most prestigious event in the soccer calendar of the AIFF till the NLF was introduced in 1996 to eclipse it somewhat. Each Santosh Trophy Championship was fiercely contested with Bengal lifting the trophy for a record 29 times.

The Federation Cup, India’s first major competition for clubs, was instituted by the AIFF in 1997. Indian Telephone Industries stunned Mohun Bagan 1-0 to lift the title in the inaugural edition at Ernakulam, and ever since the tournament has been the testing ground for prestigious clubs in the country. The handsome prize money has only added to the charm of the Fed Cup.

Yet, there was a time, when the AIFF showed lukewarm response to both Santosh Trophy and the Federation Cup, and the survival of these tournaments looked doubtful.

But there is reason for hope. Things may look up a few years down the line as the AIFF is now striving hard to professionalise the set-up. The appointment of honorary secretary Alberto Colaco as a full-time paid secretary was the first step in this direction. And with the completion of the magnificent Football House at Sector 19 in Dwaraka, Delhi, the AIFF has now a house of its own and all its activities have been shifted to the new building. It cost around Rs 3 crore to construct the Football House, out of which Rs 2 crore was funded by the FIFA (Federation International Football Association).

With Union Urban Development Minister Ajay Maken promising to hand over the sprawling field in front of the Football House to the AIFF, the Federation hopes to create its own ground and residential facilities for national campers.

The biggest constraint of the AIFF has been the lack of infrastructure. The Karnataka Football Association is the only state body to have its own stadium—Kanjeevara—in Bangalore while the other state associations have just minimal infrastructure. If cricket is a popular sport in the country and well spread out, it is because of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) insistence on creating proper infrastructure to play and run the game in each and every state and city of the country.

The AIFF, with the active backing of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), has now begun the process of creating at least five zonal centres across the country as part of the “Vision India” football development project. Vision India is part of the Vision Asia Project launched by AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam in September 2002. His ultimate goal is to prepare Asian countries in the best possible football environment, consisting of infrastructure, administration, sports sciences and technical staff, so that one day an Asian team would take a podium finish in the FIFA World Cup.

Mohammed is confident that Asia, with 3.7 billion population, has the potential to produce many world class footballing nations, and the qualification of Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia for the final rounds of the World Cup in Germany is proof of his optimism. In India alone, there are 55,000 football clubs and it’s only a question of harnessing their potential.

Under the Vision Asia project, in each of the pilot project countries, 11 key elements of football will be developed. They are: National association and clubs, marketing, grassroots and youth development, coach, education, referees, sports medicine, competitions, media, fans, women’s football and futsal—a kind of street football popular in Brazil. India is one of the eight countries under the Vision Asia Project, and the pilot projects in India would be implemented in Delhi and Manipur. It’s another story that nothing much has happened in Delhi or Manipur though the two pilot project states were designated by the AFC in 2004.

The Ambedkar Stadium, which has been chosen for locating the pilot project in Delhi, is often let out by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) for political functions, despite the frantic efforts of Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) secretary N K Bhatia to stop the “misuse”. But then who cares, as the stadium is owned by the MCD and the DSA has no control over it.

The AIFF, however, begs to differ as it insists that president Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi “is spearheading the project and making all necessary efforts within his resources to see that the project has a smooth run and attains set goals”. Dasmunshi does spare time for football, despite being Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting and Parliamentary Affairs, but certainly not quality time.

“Things are moving at a snail’s pace, We need to speed up to catch up with the rest of the world”, observed a key official at Football House. He said it would take the collective effort of every stakeholder—states, clubs, AIFF, corporates, Zee and ONGC—to make the Vision India project a success.

“The lack of professionals, unwillingness to move with the times, lack of commitment and new blood in the state associations and the AIFF, no new ideas and the amateur set-up are holding back the development of Indian football,” the official added.

Alberto Colaco, however, explained that with the AIFF making it mandatory for State associations to hold longer leagues, the impact and profile of the game is set for a makeover. At present, only Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu hold longer leagues, while Punjab, Kerala, etc. restrict their leagues to a couple of weeks. He promised that the NFL would also be run in a much more professional manner in the coming years as the FIFA and the AFC are extending a helping hand to streamline the soccer set-up in the states.

“Our biggest problem is non-availability of grounds. But we are in the process of addressing this lacuna,” said the affable Colaco, who himself has been a player of merit.

“FIFA and AFC are trying to provide us maximum guidance and we plan to work at three levels—short term (two years), medium term (five years) and long term (10 years)—to lift the standard of Indian football,” Colaco elaborated.

“Everyone has to pitch in with honest efforts to turn the game around,” added Colaco, whose face lights up with a smile, whenever he talks of football. Hope, there will be sunshine and roses for Indian football in the not-too-distant future. If wishes were horses, as Bhutia said, then India would certainly play in the World Cup, one day.

From riches to rags
Vikramdeep Johal

India might be a nonentity in world football today, but there was a time when it was a force to reckon with. The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was the “golden age” of Indian football, an era which in all probability will never return.

A year after Independence, Indian footballers made their presence felt at the London Olympics. Playing without shoes on a cold and wet field at Wembley, the Indians gave a tough fight to the Frenchmen before losing 1-2. The team was led by Nagaland-born Talimeran Ao, who also captained Mohun Bagan and later became a renowned physician.

In 1950, India was offered a god-sent opportunity to play in the World Cup in Brazil after a few countries pulled out of the competition. Instead of grabbing the chance with both hands, the All-India Football Federation virtually kicked it away. The federation requested FIFA to allow Indian footballers to play barefoot, but the world body refused to bend the rule which made wearing of shoes compulsory. Consequently, India declined to go to Brazil, wasting a “once in a lifetime” chance.

The disappointment of not playing in the World Cup did not last long as India bagged the football gold medal in the inaugural Asian Games at New Delhi in 1951. They defeated Indonesia and Afghanistan by an identical 3-0 margin and scraped past Iran 1-0 in the final.

At the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, shoeless Indians literally developed cold feet while playing in the chilly conditions. No wonder they were drubbed 10-1 by Yugoslavia. This crushing defeat was a wake-up call for the players and the federation. They realised that shoes were a must to compete at the highest level.

The 1956 Melbourne Olympics saw the “booted” Indian footballers shocking hosts Australia 4-2 in the quarterfinals. Neville Stephen D’Souza was the architect of India’s victory with a remarkable hat-trick. India took on Yugoslavia in the semifinal, but lost 1-4 despite leading 1-0 at one stage. The goal scorer for India was again D’Souza. In the third-place playoff, India went down to Bulgaria 0-3 to finish a creditable fourth.

Legendary coach Syed Abdul Rahim was the man behind India’s superb show, which remains their best performance by far in an Olympic football competition. Apart from D’Souza, the team included fine players like Noor Mohammad, Krishna Swamy Kittu and P.K. Banerjee.

Four years later in Rome, India were grouped with Hungary, France and Peru in the Olympic competition. The team lost 1-2 to Hungary and 1-3 to Peru, but managed to hold France 1-1. Thus, India finished at the bottom of the group and failed to qualify for the semifinals.

The 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta brought India their second gold medal in football. In the final, the Chuni Goswami-led team defeated South Korea 2-1, with goals coming from P.K. Banerjee and Jarnail Singh.

During those glorious years, India also finished runners-up twice in the Merdeka Cup in Kuala Lumpur (1959 and 1964).

The decline began in the mid-sixties as several top players decided to hang their boots. Unable to find replacements for great players like P.K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Jarnail Singh, India gradually became a spent force.

In the past four decades, big-time wins have been few and far between. No medal has come India’s way at the Asian Games since the bronze won in 1970. The rare recent successes include the LG Cup triumph in Vietnam (2002) and the silver medal at the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad (2003). Victories in South Asian tournaments over lowly rivals don’t count as “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is the king”.

With India not being good enough even at the Asian level, qualifying for the Olympics or the World Cup is destined to remain a pipedream.