Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Chopra the wrong choice for India

In a lot of cases, "identity" can be a grey area but Indian football must spend on developing grassroots talents - not importing them.
Michael Chopra, in blue, will likely add verve to India's strike force. But he is not the long-term solution.
Michael Chopra, in blue, will likely add verve to India's strike force. But he is not the long-term solution.

Nationality and roots were a subject of sporting debate long before Zola Budd, about as British as biltong and braai, ran under the Union Jack at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

The dissenting voices were most shrill a few years ago when certain Middle Eastern states tried to confer citizenship on Brazilian professionals so that they could play football for them.

In a lot of cases, "identity" can be a grey area. Patrick Vieira was born in Senegal but left for France as an eight-year-old. It was there that he began the journey to becoming one of the great midfield players of French football. The titan of his age had a similar background. Zinedine Zidane was born in Marseille and played for France, but his roots were in Algeria, once a French colony.

One of those seen as his successor, Mourad Meghni, was the son of an Algerian father and Portuguese mother. Meghni was very much a product of France's wonderful youth system which has its base at Clairefontaine, but when it came to national anthems, he chose the land of his father.

If you look at Michael Chopra, you might guess that he has some Indian blood, but when he opens his mouth, it could be Alan Shearer speaking. Like Shearer, Chopra went to Gosforth High School and is as Geordie as Newcastle Brown ale. His paternal grandparents may have been Indian, but Chopra himself is very much a part of the Wayne Rooney-Jermain Defoe generation of English footballers.

As is so often the case, the childhood dream of making it at his hometown club never quite materialised. By the time he reluctantly left Tyneside in 2006, Chopra had managed only 21 league appearances in the black-and-white stripes. After a superb season with Cardiff City in the Championship, he moved back to the Premiership with Sunderland, a move that earned him enemies on both sides of the Tyne-Wear divide.

He played more often with Sunderland, but with opportunities dwindling it was no surprise when he went back to Cardiff. Now, with the irrepressible Craig Bellamy also there, Cardiff City have as good a chance as anyone of gaining promotion.

Chopra has never been mentioned as a candidate for the English national team, though, and it is no surprise that he is gazing to the east with increased interest. "Representing India sounds pleasing," he said recently. "I would get the experience of international football that I've never had before. That would help myself and [Cardiff] City. I've spoken to the [Indian] manager [Bob Houghton], who's happy. Hopefully we can get things sorted."

Chopra's immediate target might be the Asian Cup in Qatar in January. Given that he still doesn't possess an Indian passport, though, that tournament may come too soon for him. "I can't say whether he will play in the Asian Cup or not," an Indian official said. "Maybe we can look for him playing for India in due course. We have to see how that can be done."

This part of the world has already seen one such reverse migration. In December 2005, Zesh Rehman, who has played for Fulham and Queens Park Rangers and now represents Bradford City, made his first appearance for Pakistan. Birmingham-born and bred, he had represented England at various age-group levels before opting to wear the Pakistan shirt.

In a 2007 interview with the newspaper Eastern Eye, Rehman suggested that his choice had a lot to do with a bias against Asian footballers in the English game. It was Chopra he mentioned to support his argument.

"Why wasn't he picked ahead of Dave Nugent [for England]? He's the top goalscorer in the Championship but he can't get in," Rehman said. "So he needs to maybe look at his decision and go play for India instead of hanging on to the dream of playing for England, because it's not going to happen. End of discussion."

Whether Indian football needs Chopra is another matter. He would certainly add skill and menace to a forward line heavily reliant on Sunil Chhetri and the ageing Baichung Bhutia, but he could also end up isolated in a group where most players would be in awe of him. Bhutia's attempts to make it in England never went further than a couple of miserable seasons on the bench at lowly Bury, while the likes of Gouramangi Singh, who had a trial with Melbourne Heart, and NP Pradeep remain big fish in a very shallow domestic pond.

Much has been made of the £23 million (Dh133m) takeover of Blackburn Rovers by Venky's, an Indian poultry firm, but the question that football aficionados here should be asking is why such money is not finding its way into local football. Kerala, where Pradeep comes from, hasn't produced a special talent in a decade, while the game is withering in its traditional Bengali heartland, as well.

The Mumbai-based Mahindra United, backed by the Jeep manufacturers, shut up shop at the end of last season after 38 years. Given the abysmal level of interest in domestic football, it just wasn't considered a viable proposition.

Instead of looking at Chopra or Ewood Park, Indian football needs to look within. Ironically, it is Blackburn that should be the model for Venky's and every other investor. The late Jack Walker didn't spend millions on Real Madrid or Inter Milan. He splurged on his hometown club. There's a lot to be said for that.