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What ails Indian football

Print edition : Jul 06, 2002 T+T-

Arbitrary selection procedures, inadequate preparation, insufficient international exposure and match-practice, and scant attention to age-group teams have been the bane of Indian football.

SENEGAL became the second African nation to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, before they lost 0-1 to Turkey in the quarter-finals of the recent 17th edition of the sporting extravaganza. It emulated the feat of Cameroon, the only other African nation to reach the quarter-finals, way back in Italia'90, before losing 2-3 to England. In the African Nations Cup held in February 2002, Senegal finished runners up to Cameroon, losing on penalty kicks in the final in Mali. For a country which got FIFA affiliation only in 1962, two years after its National football Association was formed, Senegal's achievements are remarkable.

It has just 82 registered clubs and its economy is not strong enough to support an active professional league. Kolkata has more registered clubs than the whole of Senegal. But the 'Lions of Teranga', as the team is known, excelled because as many as 21 of the 23 members of the World Cup squad play in various clubs in France.

Nigeria, which played in its third successive World Cup, is also a team of late developers. Its National Football Association was formed in 1945 and it got FIFA affiliation in 1959. Despite its social and economic problems, Nigeria has 1,400 registered professional players, who are playing all over the world, including India.

In contrast, organised football has existed for over a century in India. The Durand Cup football tournament, India's oldest football tournament started in 1888, the Rovers Cup in Mumbai in 1893 and the IFA Shield in Calcutta in 1891. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) was formed in 1937 and got FIFA affiliation in 1939. Yet, in the FIFA rankings as of June 2002, Nigeria is ranked 27th, Senegal 42nd and India 123rd.

Senegal owes its success in the World Cup to its French coach Bruno Metsu, who has got so integrated with that country that he has even married a Senegalese woman. Many feel that India's football woes can be alleviated by bringing in foreign coaches. However, there are no easy solutions. From 1982 (when the Asian Games were held in Delhi) to 1996 India experimented with five different East European coaches - Dietmar Pfiefer from the erstwhile German Democratic Republic; the late Milovan Ciric of Yugoslavia, who also coached Red Star Belgrade; Josef Gelei, Hungary's goalkeeper in the 1966 World Cup; Jiri Pesek of the Czech Republic; and Rustam Akhramov of Uzbekistan - but achieved little success.

Inadequate foreign exposure, limited opportunity with the national team and interference in team selection dampened the enthusiasm of the foreign coaches. They were shuttled between from the senior team and the age-group teams and did not devote adequate time with either team. This is in direct contrast to the impact that Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, appointed in January 2001, has had on the South Korean team. Hiddink put a lot of emphasis on power training, physical fitness and speed work. In fact, Rustam Akhramov and recent coach Syed Nayeemuddin attempted such drills with the national team but they did not get enough time with it to bring about a substantial change and there was no encouragement from the AIFF.

Hiddink also played on the psyche of the Korean players, bringing in subtle changes. In Korea, with its Confucian influence, hierarchy is all-important, and junior players were scared of the seniors in the national team. Hiddink broke this rigidity in relationships by flouting the unwritten rules governing such things as seating arrangements and speaking out of turn. As a result,the players learnt to communicate better. Hiddink achieved all this and made the Korean team one of the fittest in the world because the Korean Football Association gave him time and a free hand in the selection of the World Cup squad.

In June 2002, India appointed 39-year-old Englishman Stephen Constantine, a FIFA instructor, as national coach. His first major assignment is the coming Asian Games in Pusan, South Korea, at which event football will be played as an under-23 tournament. He is the second Englishman after Harry Wright in the 1960s to be the national coach. AIFF's new marketing agents, London-based Strata Sports, actively championed Constantine's case. How he fares and how much freedom he gets in team selection remains to be seen.

THERE have been foreign coaches for the age-group level national teams also. Ivosajih of Slovenia was coach of the India under-21 team at the third Rajiv Gandhi international tournament (under-21 years) held in Goa from May 5 to 12, 1998, but heavy losses to Iraq (1-5) and Uzbekistan (1-5) saw his contract being terminated. Islam Akhmedov of Uzbekistan was appointed coach for the India subjunior (under-16 years) team in April 2000. However, he was unable to guide India to the final rounds of the Asian championships.

In 1997, India's most successful club coach of the 1990s, Syed Nayeemuddin, was appointed national coach until the conclusion of the 1998 Bangkok Asiad. Nayeem, a disciplinarian, developed a physically fit, tactically alert and confident national team, which has dominated regional competitions. India beat the Maldives 5-1 in the 1997 SAFF Championship final and won $50,000, the highest-ever prize money it has won so far. In the same year, India, coached by Nayeem, reached the semi-finals of the Nehru Cup international tournament for the first time. Yet, the AIFF treated Nayeem shabbily and ignored all his pleas for foreign exposure ahead of the 1998 Bangkok Asiad.

Since taking over in January 2001, until the start of the 2002 World Cup on May 31, Hiddink's South Korea played 26 internationals either in friendly matches or in tournaments abroad. Contrast this with India's preparation under Syed Nayeemuddin for the 1998 Asian games. Prior to the Games, which were held in 1998, India did not play a single practice match from September 1997 to November 1998. A fortnight before the start of the Games, India played two friendly matches against Uzbekistan in Delhi and Calcutta. During his tenure Nayeem, at Rs.50,000 a month, remained the highest paid unemployed person in the country. A waste of money and talent, and a clear indication why India does not succeed in international football.

Sukhwinder Singh, who succeeded Nayeem as national coach in 1999, also received little help in terms of exposure from the AIFF. For the 1999 Asia Cup qualifying round matches in Abu Dhabi, the national team departed without a practice match even against a local club team. His team selection for the 2002 World Cup qualifiers was hampered by an AIFF directive that only three players can be selected from a club. This was apparently done to ensure the completion of the Fifth National Football league, which had been stopped for a month in January 2001 so that the Sahara Millennium Cup international football tournament could be held.

India played no friendly matches before the World Cup qualifiers. Still the Indian team did quite well and upset the 64-ranked United Arab Emirates 1-0 in the home leg in Bangalore. For the World Cup qualifiers, AIFF secretary Alberto Colaco introduced incentive payments and proper remuneration for the first time; each player in the squad got a lump sum payment of Rs.25,000. For the win against the UAE, all the 18 players got Rs.15,000 each as bonus. Sukhwinder Singh got Rs.1 lakh, assistant coach Krishnaji Rao Rs.60,000 and the goalkeepers' coach, Brahmanand, Rs.50,000. This was a creditable move and inspired the players, who had previously got a mere $10 a day on trips abroad. Sukhwinder was coach for three years and during this period India played just 31 internationals including seven matches against first and second division English clubs during the tours to that country in 2000 and 2001.

MANY of India's top footballers were amongst the best in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. The late Jarnail Singh, Chuni Goswami, P.K. Banerjee, T. Balaram, Peter Thangaraj, Altaf Ahmed and Yusuf Khan, Prasun Banerjee and Atanu Bhattacharya have played for the Asian All Stars XI. Stopper back Jarnail Singh was even captain of the Asian All Stars XI. At one stage, in the mid-sixties, India had four players - Jarnail, Yusuf Khan, Altaf Ahmed and goalkeeper Thangaraj - in the Asian All Stars XI. Atanu Bhattacharya was the last to be selected in 1986. Right back Sudhir Karmakar was chosen the Best Defender in Asia after India came third in the 1970 Bangkok Asiad.

However, sadly, none of them had the ambition to become professionals and compete with the best in the world. They became victims of the typical middle class equilibrium trap, contented with public sector jobs and reasonable remuneration from their respective clubs. Chuni Goswami had an offer to play for Tottenham Hotspur in England in the 1960s, but declined it opting for the safety of a State Bank of India job. In the 1970s, ace winger Surojit Sengupta had offers to play as a professional in the UAE and Kuwait but declined them for the safety of a bank job in India. 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.

No Indian player has been a role model as Hidetoshi Nakata has been for Japan, who set the trend of playing in the Italian league after the 1998 World Cup. Other Japanese players such as goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (with first division club Portsmouth in England), Shinji Ono (for Feyanoord in the Netherlands) and Junichi Inamoto (with Arsenal in the 2001-02 season) have followed Nikata's example and improved as professionals. Similarly, South Korea had Ahn Jung Hwan playing for Perugia (Italy) and Seol Ki Hyeon for Anderlecht in Belgium.

Arbitrary selection, inadequate preparation, insufficient international, exposure and match-practice, and scant attention to age-group teams have been the bane of Indian football since Independence. In the 1950s when India had many talented players, domestic matches were confined to 70 minutes, instead of the internationally approved 90 minutes. Thus, Indian teams playing abroad often ran out of stamina and lost.

The stagnation of football in India can be measured in the number of tournaments organised across the country. In the 1960s and 1970s about 125 domestic tournaments were held every year all over the country. In the 1980s the number came down to about 100. In Kerala alone nine major All India tournaments were held each year. In the new millennium there are barely two dozen tournaments held every year in India. The AIFF is just not able to attract sponsors. Thus the Federation Cup, billed as the knockout cup of India, was not held for two years since 1998 for lack of a sponsor. It was revived in 2001, with the AIFF bearing the costs. The Nehru Cup, started with fanfare in 1982 to provide international exposure to Indian players, has not been held since 1997. Now, India's junior and sub-junior teams are chosen and trained only for participation in Asian championships and get limited exposure. There is little follow-up on talented players who emerge from the Northeastern region and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

FOR so many years Indian football has remained an enigma. It is the most popular spectator sport at the domestic level. A record 131,000 people witnessed the KBL-Federation Cup semifinal between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in July 1997 at the Salt Lake Stadium in Calcutta. Crowds in the range of 70,000 to 100,000 are frequent in Kerala and Bengal for the Federation Cup or Nehru Cup international football tournaments. In smaller football centres like Goa, Bangalore and Delhi, capacity crowds in the region of 25,000 to 35,000 often witness needle matches involving Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting, Salgaocar and Dempo Goa, F.C. Kochin, JCT and in earlier days Hyderabad City Police. Despite such a massive following, football has not evolved into a professional game in India, as it has in Japan, South Korea and in West Asia. None of the Indian clubs own stadiums or have easy access to modern gymnasiums. Even established clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal lease their grounds at the Calcutta Maidan from the Indian Army.

The major factor is that unlike cricket, football has not been marketed efficiently. Thus, instead of growing in popularity, football in India is confined to West Bengal, Goa, Kerala, the Northeastern States and small areas in Mumbai and Delhi. Traditionally strong areas of football like Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai have declined owing to inefficient management by the State associations and vote bank politics of the AIFF.

The 1951 to 1962 decade was the best for India at the international level. It was among the top teams in Asia, winning the Asian Games gold medal twice - in 1951 at Delhi and 1962 at Jakarta. It was twice runners up in the Merdeka football tournament at Kuala Lumpur, in 1959 and 1964, and runner up in the Asia Cup in Israel in 1964. India finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and was the first Asian nation to reach the Olympic football semi-final. India beat Australia 4-2 in the quarter-finals and centre forward Neville D'Souza became the first and until now only Asian to score a hat trick in the Olympics. From 1948 to 1960 India played regularly and with reasonable distinction in every Olympics. India also won the Quadrangular tournament, involving India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, four times from 1952 to '55.

However, in the last three decades instances of success have been limited. Since 1960 India has not qualified for the Olympics. 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. It won a bronze medal in the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games and the Indian junior team was joint winners with Iran in the Asian Youth championships in 1974. In the 1980s India won the South Asian Federation Games gold medal three times - 1985 in Dhaka, 1987 in Calcutta and 1995 in Chennai. It won the SAFF Championships too three times - 1993 in Lahore, 1997 in Kathmandu and 1999 in Goa. However, India's domination at the South Asian level is not as pronounced as it was at the Quadrangular tournament in the 1950s. Professional management, better marketing, greater attention to the National team and broadbasing the game in different States are required for Indian football to have a brighter future in the 21st century.