x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Football fights a losing battle in India

In India, where cricket is king, the beautiful game struggles to get a mention or attention.

Football and other sports rarely get a look-in with cricket-mad supporters in India, seen here glued to shop television sets to watch their side take on South Africa on Wednesday in Durban. HK Rajashekar / The India Today Group / Getty Images
Football and other sports rarely get a look-in with cricket-mad supporters in India, seen here glued to shop television sets to watch their side take on South Africa on Wednesday in Durban. HK Rajashekar / The India Today Group / Getty Images

In Indian football lore, a match against Australia has a special place. Back in 1956, the country was still an Asian powerhouse, and Neville D'Souza's hat-trick inspired a 4-2 victory over the hosts in the quarter-finals of the Melbourne Olympics. D'Souza scored again in the last four, against mighty Yugoslavia, but four unanswered goals ended the adventure.

On Monday night, the national team made their return to the big stage and were indebted to Subrata Pal, the goalkeeper, for restricting Australia to only four goals. There was muted talk of national shame, and some harsh words, but most of the diehards watching understood what an unequal contest it had been.

Two of Australia's goals came from Everton's Tim Cahill, while Harry Kewell, who once played against him for Liverpool in the Merseyside derby, also scored with a left-footed rocket from outside the box. Most of the Australia squad have some experience in the top leagues, and their own A-League is far ahead of India's I-League in terms of playing standards.

Not one Indian would get anywhere near the reserve team of an English Premier League side, and the initial fuss over Sunil Chhetri's move to Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards has died down with the acknowledgement that he is not likely to be the next Marco Etcheverry or David Beckham.

The morning after, Mathrubhumi, the Malayalam paper which has been around more than 80 years, led its sports pages with the headline: Four-goal defeat. The report that followed bemoaned India's lack of quality, while acknowledging the superiority of their opponents.

Football in Kerala is serious business, but the decline in the state's fortunes illustrates the challenge faced by the national side. In the late 1980s, the Kerala state side (in the Santosh Trophy) and Kerala Police (in the club tournaments), played some lovely football, with IM Vijayan's skill and technique to the fore.

Coming from a humble background, he lacked the language skills and the confidence to give it a go abroad. Had he done so, he could have been a qualified success and the path-breaker that the country needed.

Instead, with economic liberalisation and the creation of a professional league, teams like the Kerala Police have withered away. Viva Kerala, who wander around in search of a home, are the state's only representatives in the big league, and local tournaments like the Sait Nagjee Cup, which once attracted thousands to the stands and makeshift bamboo galleries at the Corporation Stadium in Calicut, are now just a fond memory.

Two days after the loss to Australia, the Asian Cup had been relegated to the second page and the lead story in the sports section was on whether Shanthakumaran Sreesanth would replace Munaf Patel in India's one-day team. Sreesanth's success and the establishment of an Indian Premier League franchise in Kochi has further queered the pitch in a state that was once almost exclusively football country.

Some would tell you that Bengal's decline as the hothouse of Indian football also coincided with Sourav Ganguly's emergence as a batsman of rare quality. In a country where cricket tends to transcend sport, it can be hard for football and others to keep up.

The numbers make for sober reading. Kerala has a population of more than 30 million. India's next Asian Cup opponents are Bahrain, with a population less than one million. In theory, India should absolutely hammer them. Reality will probably see the reverse happen.

Bahrain, like the other Gulf countries, has invested heavily in football over the past three decades. The training facilities and coaching for children are immeasurably superior to anything available in India. It helps, too, that cricket is not a viable competitor for the attention of Gulf nationals.

And while Bahrain got within 90 minutes of a World Cup place - thwarted only by New Zealand - India had to be content with back-door entry to this Asian Cup. Forget matching Australia. The short-term goal has to be to reform the grass-roots structure to an extent that India can at least compete with the likes of Bahrain by 2020.

As for the Asian Cup, India still have pride to play for. In that regard, India could learn from their first-game conquerors. The Socceroos were pulverised 4-0 in their opening World Cup game last June, playing with uncharacteristic timidity against a rampant Germany. Justifiably criticised afterwards, they rebounded with a plucky draw against Ghana and victory against Serbia.

Success against South Korea, the team that they beat in the Asian Games final of 1962, is beyond the realms of fantasy, but if Bob Houghton can use the backlash from Monday effectively, a tenacious display against skilful Bahrain will go a long way towards restoring smiles on supporters' faces.