It is the state of affairs in Indian sports that when you google 'What ails Indian football?' you not only come up with what ails Indian football, but what ails Indian hockey, what ails Indian basketball, and yes, and even the only team sport that we have achieved some success in recent years, what ails Indian cricket. Well, Indian sports is ailing. Period.
Our Asian Cup qualifiers took another sorry turn as we were beaten by Yemen, 1-2 on 15 November. The previous two results, 0-3 against Japan, 1-7 against Saudi Arabia. Were we better in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers? We lost to Japan, 0-7, 0-4; Oman 1-5, drew 0-0; beat Singapore 1-0, lost 0-2. We conceded 18 goals and scored 2. Our 2002 record was better and we won 3 games out of five, scoring 11 goals and conceding 5. Our FIFA ranking is 143, down from 117 a few years ago. We have declined from an already failed state of affairs in football.
But we are better in our own neighbourhood, aren't we? We usually plunder the gold medal tally and walk away with 87 gold medals, 45 silvers, 23 bronzes or some such ridiculous number in the South Asian Games (SAG). Well, in the 10th SAG, India lost to Sri Lanka in the semifinals, 5-6 and then lost to Nepal for the 3rd and 4th spot, 0-2.
There is one country we can come out swinging against, national pride at stake, our nemesis across the border, Pakistan . After all we always work ourselves into a lather when we have our test matches and one day internationals against them. Any loss is treated as a blow against our collective psyche and days of breast beating follow. Nope, there also our Indian football team performed shabbily. In three recent friendlies in Pakistan, the Indian team drew one, and lost two. It has come to the point where even beating Fiji in friendlies has become difficult.
Well, you might say, this is our senior side and we really should focus on the highlights our youth squads will provide in the future. In the recently concluded Asian Youth Football Championships, in Kolkata, India, we drew Krygyzstan, 0-0, lost to Jordan, 2-3 and to South Korea, 0-3. The four qualifiers, Jordan, DPR Korea, South Korea, and Japan will represent Asia in the World Cup U-20 in Canada next year. We were the hosts with home field advantage and we could not get a victory.
A look at the top rung executives of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body that runs Indian football reveals that almost all come from four states, West Bengal, Goa, Kerala, and Manipur. Certainly, India's top two honchos Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the President and Alberto Colaco, are from West Bengal and Goa, respectively. The traditional powerhouses in Indian football W. Bengal, Kerala, and Goa have always been well represented. This parochialism would not have been questioned if Indian football was alive and thriving and our national squads were doing well. However it is not, and one should question the composition of the executive committee.
In fact, India had her moments under the sun in the 40's, 50's, and the 60's when we won the inaugural New Delhi Asian Games in 1951 and then again in 1962, in Jakarta. In between India finished 4th in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. India were runners up in the Merdeka Cup (Asia's most prestigious tournament) in 1959 and 1964. We even qualified for the World Cup in 1950 by invitation but FIFA declined to accept our request to play barefeet. A golden opportunity went abegging. This all too brief interlude with success came to an end as a generation of Indian players like Chuni Goswami. PK Banerjee, Peter Thangaraj, Neville D'Souza, and Jarnail Singh hung up their boots.
These success stories have never been translated into other Indian players wanting to emulate Chuni Goswami. Unlike cricket where every aspiring batsman wanted to be the next Sunil Gavaskar or Sachin Tendulkar. The Indian football player's idol is Ronaldinho. No wonder we can't win. We don't want to because our dreams have become unattainable, socially distorted and culturally irrelevant. A generation of Indian role models was lost. A promising development came in 1999 when Baichung Bhutia, our present Indian captain was transfered to Bury, a second division English club. I remember that exhilarating moment, it was a portent that Indian football would again be relevant. A generation of new Indian players would find inspiration overseas and develop their skills playing for the more physical and faster paced leagues abroad whether in second or third tier French, German, or Portugese teams. Having an exposure to new coaching and techniques, the physicality, the different formations used, sliding tackles, and even being the lone Indian would enhance their performance in the national team.
The AIFF would push this phenomenon. As did the BCCI, in cricket encouraging Indian players to play English county cricket, to better themselves against pace and swing bowling. Selection into a county team was considered a honour for cricket players. A number of players from Dilip Vengsarkar to Zaheer Khan have played county cricket and benefited from the exposure.
But Bhutia's transfer remained the only singular achievement. He remained a one player wonder. Unlike Hidetoshi Nakata's selection to Bolton Wanderers that opened the floodgates for other Japanese players to go overseas like Junichi Inamoto, Koji Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, and Naohiro Takahara that has helped lead Japan to successfully qualify three World Cups in a row, 1998, 2002, and 2006, and in doing so has energized their own domestic J-League. Nowadays, Japan's success is self perpetuating. Fox Sports Channel in the US has a weekly update which keeps us abreast with Gamba Osaka, Kashima Antlers, and the Urawa Reds.
An often stated reason for Indian football lacking dynamism, is that it's national league has not caught on in popularity because it lacks savvy marketing. When we say national league in India it actually means the two cities of Kolkata, Mumbai, and the state of Goa. Out of the 10 clubs that play this year's season in National Football League (in existence since 1996), 3 belong to Kolkata, 4 are from Goa, 2 from Mumbai, and the only exception is JCT Mills in Phagwara. A whole nation's aspirations in football boils down to three regions. Even the relegation NFL-II, has mostly teams from these cities, including Tollygunge Agragami, Churchill Brothers, and Dempo SC. The status quo remains the same from the top in the AIFF flag bearers to the grassroots, as it has done so for nigh on half a century. This rigid hierarchy has to give for football to spread in India. In cricket, the days of Delhi and Maharashtra dominating the national team has gone because cricket has taken over the rest of the country. No amount of savvy marketing will do any good at all, if all it does is get more clubs from Goa and W. Bengal to play.
For Indian football to succeed, we have to start small. We have to care of our own backyard. Losing to Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan is not a way to start. You have to become the best in South Asia by a mile and then we can think of taking on Yemen, Oman, and the UAE, for the Asian Cup and the World Cup qualifiers.
It is the stated objective of the President of the All India Football Federation, Mr Priyaranjan Das Munshi, that India will be represented in the 2010 World Cup finals. I think Bob Houghton, India's coach should have a talk with this man but then again the AIFF is probably paying his wages and he will in most likelihood lose his job if he gave Mr Das Munshi a reality check. So dream on Mr Das Munshi because you can afford to, Indian football can't.