Once in four years the whole world gets excited about the World Cup. So do the Indians, taking stock of their own football.
The other night ‘Mirror Now’, television channel got five knowledgeable football experts to discuss the state, rather the ills, of Indian football. Three of them are passionately involved with the sport, the others wasted time contradicting the panelists in what turned out to be a futile exercise, though some good did filter through the animated debate.
An impassioned appeal by India’s captain Sunil Chhetri to fans to fill the stadiums to encourage his team sent social media agog, bringing in Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli among others to endorse his plea. Even Sania Mirza had a little banter with Chhetri, asking for tickets and in reply had what she called “the legend” seeking tickets for the tennis star’s next match.
The plea worked as the stadium was packed in Mumbai to see Chhetri play his hundredth international match and leading the team to victory against Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup, scoring two of India’s three goals. The two teams had qualified for Sunday’s final from a round robin league with New Zealand and Chinese Taipei, all lower ranked teams to India’s 97.
It took three years for India to jump from 173 to 97, though the critics think that the All India Football Federation Federation (AIFF) manipulated this by playing lower ranked teams. The federation rebutted the argument saying in the last year or so India played teams that qualified for the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup and made the finals after eight years and thus, teams were not picked by the AIFF for bilateral events. Moreover, all these matches were played on a home and away basis.
India’s actual jump occurred during the 2015-17 period when they had a 13-match unbeaten run, seven of these coming against teams like Nepal, Laos, Macau and Mauritius.
While India did well against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan in the Asian Cup qualifiers, the tables were turned on them by the central Asian team when they went to Bishkek for the return leg and there their winning streak ended.
The protagonists claim that the players turning out for India today have mostly come from the federation’s youth development programme, seven of the first 11 playing in the Intercontinental Cup. In all the 34 who played for India, a majority are products of AIFF stable.
From time to time, the media goes to town about English Premier League and La Liga clubs starting their summer coaching programmes and many mistake it to be academies run by the famous clubs.
These and the so-called private academies are turning out to be money-making rackets. Some of the I-League and Indian Super Leage (ISL) clubs have also announced the setting up of academies but actually they are mere football shops.
Even the AIFF’s regional academies, started with much fanfare in Kolkata and Mumbai, had to close down for lack of accommodation and basic infrastructure. The federation now runs only its Goa Academy where it also has an Elite Academy.
The Kolkata Academy will come up on a 15-acre land the West Bengal Government leased out to the AIFF and that should ease pressure on Goa. Then there other academies and football schools run by former India star Bhaichung Bhutia for juniors.
These programmes are being touted for long. Unless there is a club culture and major domestic tournaments to test their caliber, Indian football will continue to run like a slow and steady tortoise, hoping some day it will reach the destination.
Old-timers continue to lament over the federation forcing tournaments like DCM, Durand, Rovers, IFA Shield, Stafford Cup, Nizam Gold Cup and Sait Nagjee Cup, covering the major football centres, to be closed down in search of an El Dorado called professional league.
The domestic football circuit used to have a summer circuit down south and the northern circuit in the winter. These circuits have also encouraged corporates and banks to start and recruit top footballers, besides the Railways and the Services giving utmost priority to their teams.
On Chhetri’s appeal, a capacity crowd of 7,000 could turn up for the match in Mumbai, it only shows people are interested in watching good sport and football is universally popular.
India should cash in on the game’s popularity.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])