Indian football needs a massive overhaul and cosmetic changes will just not help in long run


Indian football needs a massive overhaul and cosmetic changes will just not help in long run

Indian Football

Indian football evokes great passion for old-timers. If you happen to meet old-timers — football fans — in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Madras (now Chennai), Bangalore (Bengaluru), and several other areas in Kerala, they will talk about the magic Indians produced between 1950 and 1970.

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Names of Sailen Manna, Peter Thangaraj, PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, and Tulsidas Balram will come readily to the mind when one talks of the golden era, which included a gold medal at the maiden Asian Games held in New Delhi in 1951. That was the birth of the Asian Games, which is now pretty much high profile. Sadly, today, India languishes at rock bottom in Asian football.

It is very easy to be critical and point fingers at a few people for the decay in Indian football. Yet, none can kill the passion that it still evokes. You have to visit the maidans of Kolkata, even today, to see the tents which are pitched there. Such was the rivalry between favorite teams like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, wherever they met, their fans were extremely emotional.

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Kolkata: An Indian city that has produced football talent like none other

PK Banerjee
PK Banerjee

The famous “Khela Hobe” phrase in Bengal is now being used as a euphemism in Indian politics. Yet, for anyone who has sampled the football craze in Kolkata, the crowd that it attracts for a local league featuring arch-rivals — Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — still draws a packed house. From the maidans to the gigantic Salt Lake Stadium on the outskirts of Kolkata, a lot may have changed. Yet, the crowds continue to pour in for football matches, despite the stock of Indian football plummeting to abysmal depths.

You can take anything out of a Kolkatan, but not his passion for football. And that is irrespective of where he lives in the world. Football is in his breath and his staple food. Sadly, Indian football has seen, at first a decline, then decay. The process of the national team’s standards beginning to fall happened long ago.

We can gloat over Baichung Bhutia, who today fancies his chance of becoming the All India Football Federation President, and also Sunil Chettri. Yet, when you compare what these guys produced on the field compared to dadas of old-school football PK and Chuni, this is nothing.

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How AIFF has destroyed Indian Football

AIFF
AIFF

Frankly speaking, football is still popular in India. And that is why there is a hue and cry over the FIFA decision to suspend India. It means the FIFA under-17 World Cup for girls, to be held in October in India at three venues is now under threat. India hosted the FIFA under-17 World Cup for boys in 2017, and it did generate huge excitement. Sadly, we never got to see players from that team go on to become big names.

For a long, India has celebrated mediocrity in its football. This is a bit like the hockey fans’ love for the stick and ball game, which had also slipped to rock bottom. If hockey saw poor results, then coaches came and went, like today’s cab drivers. The rot was identified, much later. It needed several changes including finding the best coaches to rebuild the Indian hockey teams — men and women. Results are there to see.

The way the All India Football Federation (AIFF) drove football into the ground is a harsh truth. One can blame outgoing Praful Patel for having done the damage. But he is not the sole man responsible. As much as we talk of separating sport and politics, these two are intertwined. Before this, in Congressman Late Priyaranjan Dasmunshi we had an AIFF president who did no better. Indian football needs to say prayers and hope for miracles there can be a revival of sorts.

When the AIFF introduced the NFL (National Football League) in 1996, it generated huge hype. After that, India saw the I-league come into existence. It was good to have a league system in place but football at the grassroots was dying. It was very much like natural grass drying and dying for lack of water and nutrients in the soil.

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For the AIFF to have killed domestic football was a sin. That sin cannot be washed away even today. Old-timers will have several stories to narrate on how the Santosh Trophy, which was the premier National Championship, was reduced to rubble. State teams competing in it today are lackluster as the tournament has been reduced to nothing.

Club football in India: Good football replaced with commercialism

Club football may have meant better salaries for a select few players, though it was overseas players who milked the system. You can talk of how Chima Okorie was a big hit in Kolkata. Yes, Chima entertained and enthralled fans, but he was not going to play for India, Many more foreign players realized India is a great place to earn their livelihoods.

At what cost? Well, it did not act as a catalyst for Indian football. It only ensured a few players were being encouraged where commerce has replaced good football with commercialism being the main mantra. For the tournaments like Santosh Trophy, Federation Cup, and other domestic events to have been reduced to rubbles was like an earthquake causing immense damage.

None realized the rot had set in. None realized the slide had to be arrested. Someone like Dasmunshi wanted to send our substandard national men’s and women’s football teams to the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010, even though the Sports Ministry was not in favor. The neta had to win his brownie points and was ready to spend on the team’s travel and lodging to China.

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Pray, the Asian Games is not an exhibition venue, nor is it a tournament meant for exposure. The Indian teams became prey for other Asian teams and it made for pathetic viewing. The way India has been dropping in FIFA rankings is symptomatic of the malaise which set in long ago.

Will Indian Football ever raise its standards?

Today’s football fans in India watch hours of football on television. They see all European leagues and get a kick. They are happy seeing and reading about Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and many other superstars. These kids in India will answer any question on Premier League, La Liga, and even Copa America and the UEFA women’s final which happened recently. Try asking them about Indian football, you will draw a blank!

We can blame the Indian Premier League in cricket for “killing” other sports. That is an absurd argument. Club cricket in India has provided a platform for youngsters from even smaller towns to be noticed by the sheer weight of performance.

We are crying over how the  FIFA suspension will hit India hard. Yet, has anyone bothered to raise the standard of Indian football from the lowest levels? The answer is a no. Even today, in the heat and humidity of Delhi, a league is on for women. Club players descend in droves to play every week, as it is a league format. Do they get good coaching? The answer is a no.

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We have several state associations affiliated with the AIFF. Some are promoting football seriously, or so we are made to believe. For the levels to be raised, one has to be taught modern football which is all about fitness, speed, athleticism, quick recovery, and tactics. You cannot be playing skills football like the old days when footwork and ball control alone could win you matches. We would do well to learn from hockey. The football coaching methods in India are archaic. You have to change it big time.

Yes, for the national team, we hire foreign coaches who come at fat salaries, which are paid not by the AIFF but by the Sports Authority of India. The results they have produced are below par. One cannot stop the national teams from training in camps. The revival and rescue have to begin at the lowest level. Unless we build players capable of generating modern football, there is no use.

We can gloat over the ISL (Indian Super League) which has heavyweights from the corporate world spending and earning. Mind you, their interests are mostly commercial, not building good football in India.  The need of the hour is a proper roadmap. Football is still popular in schools, colleges, and local mohalla clubs. Don’t be surprised if you see a Nigerian armed with 50 footballs, and plastic cones, and imparting skills to kids in metro cities. He is doing his bit more meaningfully.

It is Indian coaching methods that need a massive transformation. We are good cheerleaders of football. Sadly, we have very little to cheer in Indian football. Winning a few friendly matches against small neighboring countries in Asia is a myopic thrill. How about producing more players like IM Vijayan and Papachan, who are still idols in Kerala? Not impossible, First, start trying.

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Also read WATCH: Manisha Kalyan etches history for Indian football by scoring a stunner against the Brazilian side