On a day India settles for a frustrating, dispiriting draw against lowly Nepal in Pune, Italian legend Alessandro del Piero — the Super in ISL last year — lands at nearby Mumbai to sell high-end scooters. On the one hand, you have the national football team hunting for a decent training centre, on another the Indian Super League clubs jetset to far corners of the world to train at the best of borrowed facilities.
Players, who can’t conjure up one meaningful move in India colours, will be made to look like superstars when they rub shoulders with yesteryear international heroes in the ISL later this year. As India take on Iran on September 8 in what will be the most difficult outing of their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, fans are dreading a drubbing at the hands of the Asian giants. The glitzy ISL though is just round the corner. Indian football inhabits these two parallel worlds.
And caught in a warp is the Indian national team, which has been in freefall for some time now. Here’s looking at the contradicting points that highlight the chasm between these two contrasting worlds, from where the national team that faces Iran has been drawn. Mihir Vasavda and Shamik Chakrabarty connect the depressing dots while looking back at where India faltered in football after a promising start to the decade.
* In April 2007, Fifa president Sepp Blatter visits Kolkata and drops in at the Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting tents. Later at a press conference, an over-enthusiastic hack pipes up asking him if the Kolkata giants should follow the Manchester United or Real Madrid model for youth development (La Masia is mercifully left out). Blatter booms, looking mighty agitated when answering the question: “You don’t have any idea how big they are. Don’t even think about them. The infrastructure I saw at the clubs here is from the past, past century. Build the infrastructure first and then try to follow China,” Eight years down the line, Bagan still can’t play their Calcutta League matches on home turf because the pitch is poor and dressing-room is archaic.
After two goalless draws in the first two matches of the Calcutta Football League this season, Mohun Bagan panic and feel compelled to buy a foreigner. East Bengal discard Dudu Omagbemi is the only option available. The Nigerian centre forward hasn’t played competitive football since May but is included in the first team without a medical. Dudu scores a hat-trick in a 5-2 win against Southern Samity while Japanese midfielder Katsumi Yusa nets the other two. The local strikers don’t make the score sheet, even after 270 minutes of football.
*Trevor Morgan during his 2010-13 tenure managing East Bengal, has been trying to explain how footballers should change their game if the approach becomes narrow with a lone striker up front. “Absolute rubbish,” a club official roars. “Football is all about getting the ball into the area and nicking it in with your foot or head,” the official revels in the simplicity of his solution.
* Back when Bob Houghton is India coach, wants an audience with all I-League club bosses. Bagan legend Subrata Bhattacharya, coaching Chirag United then, refuses to turn up. “I don’t have anything to learn from (Sir Alex) Ferguson, let alone Houghton. I’ve won the National League and Federation Cup as a coach. The basic fact is that the football we played in the 1970s was world class.”
* In 2009-10, the Bayern Munich U-19 team comes to Kolkata for a few warm-up fixtures and also to play the IFA Shield. The team boasts of a certain Thomas Muller, a callow teenager back then, but highly rated. “He’s the man for the future. Keep an eye on him,” the legendary Gerd Muller, the team’s assistant manager declares. After a friendly against East Bengal’s first team, the young Muller is asked about the quality of Indian football on display. “They (East Bengal) would qualify for the Bundesliga Fifth Division,” the German prodigy assesses.
* In 2012 December, a gang of English cricket correspondents visit Salt Lake Stadium for I-League’s high profile derby — Bagan vs East Bengal. England have wrapped up the Test match taking a 2-1 lead allowing the visiting pack to turn their attention to football. Funny man Andy Zaltzman with all his sunny disposition decides to watch from the terraces, mingling with the local fans. Towards the end of the first half, Okolie Odafa is red-carded for dissent. Bagan refuse to play the second half and the match gets called off. Zaltzman is flabbergasted. He’s never seen anything like that before. “That’s Indian football for you,” his terrace say.
* APRIL 2011. Barely 24 hours have passed since India’s most successful coach Bob Houghton parted ways following a bitter spat with the federation. But Football House exudes calm. Tiki-taka is in vogue these days and the All India Football Federation want a coach who will make India play ‘eye-pleasing, possession-based’ football like Spain and Barcelona. Whether Indian players possess the necessary nous is irrelevant to the bosses. All’s hunky dory at Phase 1 Dwarka when the national team’s performance from its first appearance in the Asian Cup in nearly 30 years – despite four-goal margin defeats – is labelled, “promising.” The AIFF has been handed a massive grant by FIFA to launch academies across India and in IMG-Reliance, they’ve found a commercial partner willing to gamble hundreds of crores on Indian football (Rs 700 crore over 15 years, to be precise). The bubble is complete: the national team will play ‘tiki-taka’, and AIFF will sit on a cash mountain. By 2015, the AIFF’s coffers are virtually empty. Academies launched with much fanfare have faded away.
* In August 2013, when Indian players line up inside the tunnel of the Independence Stadium in Khujand, the friendly against Tajikistan isn’t the only thing on their minds. Players are discussing their I-League contracts, gossiping about who is getting what. India lose 3-0. But the players go on to sign contracts upwards of Rs 70 lakh a few weeks later. For a team ranked 155th in the world that has achieved precious little, they look an over-pampered, over-paid lot. Most command a crore-plus salary with Rs 50 lakh package now a norm. And then some more in the ISL.
n Indian players, despite talking big about European ambitions, haven’t really made a serious effort to try their luck abroad. A trial here, a training stint there and that’s that. Currently, only goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh is playing abroad — in Norway for Stabaek, the rest unwilling to venture out of their comfort zones. Afghanistan have one of the highest quotas of overseas-based players in the national team. As many as 18 from their current squad are plying their trade in lower divisions of European leagues, with eight based in Germany alone. Sacrificing big bucks they can otherwise demand in Asia —like their former captain Zohib Amiri did by choosing India, the Afghans play in Europe gaining exposure and experience that reflects in the recent surge of their national team.
* Freddie Ljungberg must have played less than 60 minutes in the whole of ISL last year. But it is still enough for him to claim that Indian players lack footballing IQ. He says Indians are at least ‘three-to-four’ moves behind their foreign counterparts in reading the game. “You need to be aware of players around you if you move to a league where the quality is not the same,” he attempts politely. “Here, I can’t demand the same thing from my teammates like I could have in the Premier League. When I am used to getting the ball ‘now’ and instead it comes to me two seconds later because they haven’t seen me, I might be offside. Or if I play a ball that I think is good… they’re not moving because they are not used to anyone seeing such a move.”
* Against Nepal and earlier in Guam, Sunil Chhetri cuts a sorry figure. The 30-year-old collects a pass, a look-up, spots a player and releases the ball in not more than five to eight seconds. But the intended recipient remains static, not able to read the move resulting in wasted possession. This deficiency is glossed over in the ISL. Foreign players, though over the hill, make Indians look good in ISL, and in some cases in the I-League. But when they have to play alongside each other for India, the reality hits hard.
* The world is coming to India. But the world does not want to play India. At least that’s what the AIFF claims is one of the reasons why they haven’t been able to arrange friendly games for the national team more frequently. Since 2011, India have played 32 international friendlies, which also includes games played in tournaments like the Nehru Cup which FIFA does not consider as an official tournament. The world governing body reserves dates for friendlies, which have ranking points, to ensure leagues across the globe can schedule their matches accordingly. The AIFF have not been able to keep the ‘FIFA days’ free. The calendar though is made malleable, when I League matches are cancelled for Durga Puja after cops can’t guarantee security for matches mostly played in front of empty stands. The spillover games are then fitted into “FIFA days”, sending the international schedule for a toss. In the same period, India’s competitors have been more active. Malaysia have played 40 games since 2011 while Singapore have competed in 45. Even strife-torn Palestine, who play most of their ‘home’ matches abroad due to security concerns, have played more friendly games than India in the last four years.
* Even if they wished, the marketing minds at IMG-R and promo producers at Star Sports could not have scripted such a fairytale finish. Mohammad Rafique came off the bench in the dying minutes of the final and with virtually the last play, scored the goal that won Atletico Kolkata the inaugural ISL title. Spanish World Cupper Luis Garcia was quick to tell us how players like Rafique are the real deal; the future of Indian football; the fearless strikers. Rafique’s goal – like every other that was scored by an Indian foot – was hyped to dizzying heights. Then, reality strikes. Rafique spends I-League with East Bengal on the bench, just like every other Indian striker. Careers of promising strikers like Jeje Lalpekhlua have been hampered because they spend more time warming the bench. To protect their careers, no Indian player is willing to play as a striker anymore for their club – at least that’s what India coach Stephen Constantine believes. When overseeing India, Constantine hardly has any strikers to choose from. And in the last four matches, no player except Chhetri has been on target.
* FIFA president Sepp Blatter doled out millions of dollars to the AIFF under the flagship ‘Goal’ project. You can see it as FIFA’s drive to develop the sport in the subcontinent or a wily Blatter’s trick to ensure a vote. But that money gets used to launch academies across the country and the AIFF ropes in Dutchman Rob Baan as technical director in October 2011. Baan is credited with turning around the fortunes of Australian football during his time there. He puts together a 10-year plan, titled ‘Lakshya 2022’ for Indian football, with emphasis on the grassroots. Across academies, a similar playing system (4-3-3) is introduced to ensure uniformity and smooth transition from one age-group to the higher. Certified coaches – Indian and international – are roped in. Now, AIFF’s four regional academies and one elite one are active only on its website. Severe paucity of funds and coaches has forced shut the academies, with the federation deciding the centre in Goa alone is sufficient.
* He maybe a namesake of Chinese martial arts hero Jackie Chan but, as has been apparent in the three internationals he has played, Jackichand Singh doesn’t possess the same physical prowess. Like is the case with most Indian players, his initiation to international football has been tough, being easily out-muscled by stronger Omani and Guam players. But the Nepalese show in Pune that it can’t be that big a disadvantage. Standing just 5’5”, Nepal striker Ju Manu Rai makes quite a few in the stands take notice. As had been the trend for most of the match, an Indian defender thumps the ball forward towards Robin Singh. Standing 6’1”, Robin is expected to collect the ball without much trouble. But Rai charges towards the ball, leaps, beats Robin in the air and wins the header. Indian players’ slight physique is often cited as a disadvantage. But Rai shows it’s not impossible to win duels. All you need is a big heart.
* Unlike hockey players, Indian footballers don’t concede last minute goals. But they do not have the legs to last entire 90 minutes, with the same intensity. Constantine has introduced the GPS system to monitor player fitness levels but that can’t be the solution to solve the problem.
* Two years under Dutchman Wim Koevermans, from 2012 to 2014 seem like blackholes into which India’s best talent disappeared. Koevermans, who had overseen the growth of Dutch stars Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder among others, is tasked with the duty of ensuring a smooth transition for India’s talented teens. However the likes of Jeje, Lalrindika Ralte, Raju Gaikwad, Alwyn George and Joaquim Abranches never flourish and instead drift into oblivion. That India are practically inactive internationally for one whole year does not help either. When Constantine takes charge of the team, he has to virtually restart from where Houghton left in 2011, instead of taking over the reins from Koevermans. In the five matches he’s been in charge, Constantine has handed India debuts to 14 players. The players, all stars in their respective I-League teams, have found the intensity of international football too much to handle.
* While IMG-R have repeatedly stressed they have no influence over decisions taken by the AIFF, the federation’s perceived submission to its commercial partners is seen as a concern. Indian football is currently running on IMG-R’s monies. The management firm hands out Rs 31 crore a year (which will be in the range of Rs 50 crore from 2016 as per the agreement) to the AIFF. With no other sources of revenue, the federation takes care of the national team, I-League, junior teams and youth programmes from the funds released by IMG-R. Understandably, the AIFF does not want to bite the hands that feed them. But their passiveness has led to situation spiral out of control, especially in issues related to the future of domestic tournaments, including I-League.
* With the U-17 World Cup as its target, the AIFF choose players from an under-13 festival in 2013, train them and field them in the Subroto Cup that year. It’s dubbed one of the most ‘talented bunches’ by AIFF. That team exits in the first round itself and the following year, doesn’t play at all. Unhappy with what he sees, newly-appointed U-17 coach Nicolai Adam has to go scavenging for more players across the country. The disorganized – and in some cases non-existent – youth programmes means Adam’s hunt has hardly been satisfactory. The under-19s, who too showed early promise, are without a coach for more than a year until Lee Johnson arrives in May. It’s a worrying scenario. But then, Amitabh Bachchan rolls out ISL’s grassroots programme and suddenly everything looks rosy again.
Indian football seems to be hiding behind the boom and bluster.