TWO days after India won the Nehru Cup International Football Championship for the third time in a row, the country completed 50 years of their most prestigious title-win ever — the Asian Games gold at Jakarta in 1962. The Asiad gold at the Indonesian capital was India’s best show at the international level when they beat South Korea 2-1 in the title clash.
Harking on past glory
India had lifted the inaugural Asian Games title in Delhi in 1951, and made the semifinals grade at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. But after Jakarta, Indian football was on a free fall, while Korea and Japan became major soccer powers.
Now, India have to contend with minor pickings like the Nehru Cup, which does not even figure in the tournament calendar of the International Football Federation (FIFA). It was, therefore, no surprise that India slumped in ranking from 168 to 169 immediately after the Nehru Cup triumph.
The 1950s and the 1960s were the golden era of Indian football when the country produced world class players — P. K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh, Tulsi Ram Balram, Arun Ghosh, Peter Thangraj, and the coach with a midas’ touch, S. A.Rahim.
Football had a pan-Indian appeal. There were grounds and tournaments aplenty, and the National Championship for the Santosh Trophy was an event which fans eagerly looked forward to. The Federation Cup for clubs, too, had a formidable reputation, and major tournaments like DCM, Durand, Rovers Cup, Darjeeling Gold Cup and Sait Nagjee Cup attracted the best teams from the country, and even from abroad. India also participated in some of the finest tournaments held in Asia. Such exposures gave the players the platform to learn and improve their game.
When the Nehru Cup started in 1982, it was intended to bring top quality football to India. The first few editions of the Nehru Cup witnessed some of the star World Cup players from the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Cameroon, Argentina and China showcase their skills.
World-class Yugoslav coach Ciric Milovan was brought in to train the Indian team, and he was the first foreign coach to give a new orientation to Indian football. But when there was a change of guard at the helm of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the break-up of the socialist bloc countries like the Soviet Union etc, it sounded the death-knell of the Nehru Cup, till it was revived in 1987.
India’s success in the Nehru Cup in the past three editions has kindled hopes of a revival of the game. And this turnaround was brought in by two foreign coaches—Bob Houghton of Britain in the last two editions and Wim Koevermans of Holland.
The AIFF is determined to consolidate on the Nehru Cup gains. "Indian football is poised for a big leap after many years of hibernation", says AIFF president Praful Patel. But he conceded that the road ahead was tough, and India need to play against quality teams, and FIFA-sanctioned tournaments, to improve their standard and their ranking. The title match against Cameroon in the Nehru Cup gives out hope that India, with concerted effort, can really make a mark in the game.
The AIFF, with the help and guidance of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, has prepared a 10-year plan to strengthen the grass roots on a priority basis. The FIFA has already sanctioned Rs 50-crore and a few astro-turfs for India to create proper infrastructure across the county. The FIFA’s commitment to the development of football in India has now become visible, and the international body is taking a pro-active role, to prepare India qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Potential for growth
The FIFA sees huge potential for the growth of the game in the country. It has assured the AIFF that India is very much on the radar for hosting the 2017 Under-17 World Cup. But before that, the country should have proper infrastructure in place. India have now very few stadiums exclusively for football, and only one state body owns a stadium — the Karnataka Football Association. The FIFA is providing assistance for creating stadiums so that the game can reach out to all corners. "Indians watch a lot of foreign football, but India can gain only if domestic football becomes popular in a big way," said Valcke during his visit to Delhi recently.
On the 75th anniversary of the founding of the AIFF (1937-2012), the national federation has prepared a 10-year "lakshya (target)", project which will lay down the roadmap for the game to flourish. With IMG-Reliance chipping in, in a big way, India will hopefully become a soccer power to reckon with.