Last month, there was the small matter of the AFC Asian Cup held in Qatar, where the best of Asian football compete with each other to be heralded the best in Asia. We know very well that the world is watching keenly to see how Asians emerge after decades of slumber from the shadow of the West, in all fields of global interest including sports. I was personally very excited because the Indian football team had qualified for the AFC Cup for the first time since 1984. To my dismay however, the Indian media largely ignored this great achievement, to underline how far behind football has fallen to the alluring plague of cricket and the unstoppable financial might of the BCCI.
Lest we forget, Indian footballers, and football in general, weren't always the pushovers they are today. Like cricket, football was one of the popular sporting cultures imported by the British during their reign over this country. Indeed, if anything, football has a longer history in India compared to cricket, with the Durand Cup being one of the oldest football tournaments in the world - third only to the English and Scottish FA Cups. The Mohun Bagan - East Bengal derby games can be traced to as far back as 1925. The Salt Lake City football stadium in Kolkata which plays host to this historic derby is the 2nd largest such stadium in the world in terms of capacity.
The Golden Decade
The period from 1951-1962 is widely regarded as the finest few years Indian football has ever witnessed, under the watchful eyes of the legendary coach Syed Abdul Rahim. This was a team known widely around the world not only for their raw talent, but also for the fact that they mostly played bare-footed. India won 2 Asian Games golds, besides finishing 2nd and 4th in the other two Asian Games during this period. But, the highlight really was finishing 4th in the 1956 Olympics after becoming the first Asian team to make it to the semi-finals. By the time they came runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup, Indian football had begun its decline.
Inept Babus Missing the Professional Leap
As with most other sports in the country, football fell victim to unwarranted political clout. People with no association with the sport, or for that matter any sport whatsoever, suddenly grasped power in the highest echelons of the AIFF. Instead of promoting professional football leagues, they kicked off a series of power and money struggles that saw a spinning Roulette of coaches and a lack of investment in youth academies for the next generation of stars to arise. Politicians like Priya Ranjan Das Munshi held president positions for 20 years without contest. Alongside his many distractions, Praful Patel today controls the strings of the AIFF.
Underdogs Win Hearts
The final nail in the football coffin was hammered in when an Indian cricket team carried an underdog team to triumph in a remarkable 1983 World Cup against a seemingly invincible West Indies team. A depressed nation desperately seeking succor readily embraced these overnight heroes and cricket has never looked back since. Unlike football, even though the BCCI attracts a number of politicians like bees to a honey-pot, there has been little government interference and it has been run like a private company sincerely interested in ensuring the commercial success of the sport. Without the BCCI, cricket as a sport that attracts a billion viewers is simply unimaginable.
Indian players today are starved of quality opposition due to a combination of a poor league setup and a low FIFA ranking. They end up playing a number of friendlies with clubs in Europe simply to gain much needed exposure. I remember watching a friendly between then Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven and India 10 years ago. It was a bitter lesson for the defence that day, as twice the whole back-line stepped up as one to play the offside trap, but left 4 attackers free to pick who will tap in the goal. Fast-forward to the AFC Cup 2011, and I saw a shocking repeat of the same against Bahrain as Abulatif gleefully tapped in past a hapless goalkeeper in a game where he scored 3 other goals as Bahrain won 5-2.
The AFC Cup qualification itself was a wild-card entry. India won the AFC Challenge Cup, which is a tournament for emerging nations, similar to the ones that are organised by the ICC in cricket, giving them a direct entry to the AFC Cup finals. Think of Indian football in the AFC Cup as the Dutch cricket team in the ICC World Cup. While any draw would have been tough, Group C in the AFC Cup was the worst India could hope for, with recent World Cup participants Australia and South Korea, besides Middle-East powerhouse Bahrain for company. It predictably ended in 3 defeats, with scores reading a dismal 4-0 (Aus), 5-2 (Bah), and 4-1 (Kor). Nevertheless, there was no lack of spirit, and a few notable young stars hold much promise.
The most notable performer is the outstanding custodian in goal - Subrata Pal. Athletic, agile, and brave, he single-handedly ensured the scores weren't more humiliating than they already look. Clearly the only one close to being world-class, one hopes he gets the chance to ply his trade in stronger leagues. Sunil Chhetri is however the only one currently registered with a foreign team. I say registered because the Kansas City Wizards don't seem to want to play him in the MLS in the USA. However, this diminutive striker is a wizard by Indian standards and has pace and trickery to go with neat finishing skills. 21 goals in 43 appearances for the national team are proof that he should easily surpass Baichung Bhutia as the top goal-poacher in Indian history.
The only other notable performers are center-back Gouramangi Singh who won the AIFF player of the year 2010, and the aging left-winger Renedy Singh, who scored the stunner against Bahrain that was awarded to Chhetri. The pressure of being labeled "The Indian Beckham" clearly told on Steven Dias as he followed one disappointing delivery with another.
The future really is not in the hands of these players above, nor in those of the perspiring and inspirational manager Bob Houghton. Each defeat in the AFC Cup was followed by an interview in which Houghton desperately called for the Indian authorities to notice the hardwork the players are putting in and to invest in infrastructure - stadiums, competitive leagues, youth academies. It is not as if we can't find fans amongst a billion people. The English Premier League has witnessed a remarkable growth in the number of Indian viewers in recent years. What the fans want is a competitive league with quality players and quality stadiums to watch them in.
The league has been restructured, but the only thing that stands out is its cool new name - I-League. The noteworthy addition to this league however is that of the Indian Arrows - a team meant to breed young talent. It was formed when it was noted that most teams in the league sign up youngsters but are wary of blooding them too young.
The only way I can see fans flocking back to the stadiums is if the style of play switches from the archaic hoof-ball English tactics to the style that Syed Abdul Rahim pursued during the Golden Decade - possession football with neat passing and switch of play. It is the most attractive style of play that even spectators who are new to the sport instantly enjoy, and is followed like a religion by top European clubs like Barcelona and Arsenal. Spain's World Cup triumph and the recent World Cup runs of South Korea and Japan are completely down to an investment in this kind of football.
It needs a lot of skill, not just to complete passes, but to keep possession under
pressure. The players can develop that. What they cannot develop are stadiums with lush green fields that are conducive to this kind of play. If the organisers give them rough, shoddy lawns to play in where the ball won't roll past a few meters, who wouldn't be tempted to lump it forward hopefully?
As more fans are attracted to the global allure of football, one can only wonder how long will it be before someone pumps in the money BCCI style to tap into the one enviable wealth we hold as a country - a huge bulging middle-class population with money to spend on entertainment.