x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Making a name for yourselves

Some would say that Diego Armando Maradona and Al Wasl are the perfect match.

He was the preeminent footballer of the 1980s, both with Argentina and Napoli, southern Italian country cousins whom he led to the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Uefa Cup glory. They were the UAE's leading side, winning four of their seven titles in that decade. Some would say that Diego Armando Maradona and Al Wasl are the perfect match.

There was even symmetry in the timing of his appointment as coach for next season. Maradona's last outing was in charge of his national side in South Africa last June. Having won plaudits in the early stages of the competition, the Argentine campaign came to an abrupt halt in the quarter-final, on a day when Lionel Messi and company had simply no answer to German pace and movement off the ball.

Soon after his return to the game was announced, Al Wasl played Al Jazira, runaway leaders, in the Pro-League. The result was a thumping, and the 4-0 score line identical to the humiliation that Maradona suffered on the sidelines at the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town.

Across the Arabian Sea, Indian football lovers will learn of the Maradona appointment and smile ruefully. The I-League season is coming to a close, with East Bengal, one of India's traditional big two, trying to stave off the challenge of three Goan sides - Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers and Dempo - in a tussle that could go to the final day of the season.

Barcelona have had it pretty much their own way in the Primera Liga. AC Milan were a cut above in Serie A, while Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund also sealed their titles with time and games to spare. The Indian fan closely follows each of these leagues. Yet, ask them about the four-way scrap in their own backyard and you're likely to get a quizzical glance.

Venky's, an Indian poultry firm, now owns Blackburn Rovers. Another Indian, Ahsan Ali Syed, bought Racing Santander in January. The level of investment in football at home, though, remains abysmal, with the finances such a problem that Mahindra United, a well-known side backed by a Jeep manufacturer, folded last year.

Pumping money into local clubs isn't the obvious solution either. What Indian football needs is a profile, someone or something that will catapult it to the front and back pages usually reserved for cricket. What it's crying out for is a Maradona-like signing.

Andre Villas-Boas may be tomorrow's coach, but even if an East Bengal were to hire him tomorrow, it wouldn't make any difference. Indians crave stardust. More than 100,000 watched in Kolkata a few years ago when Japan crushed India in a World Cup qualifier. The reason? The presence of Zico, then Japanese coach, on the sidelines.

No top player will contemplate a move to the I-League any time soon. But a big-name coach might, if the money on the table is right. Maradona is no tactical genius, but imagine having someone like him or Zico patrolling the white line. Even Sachin Tendulkar wouldn't be guaranteed the back-page headline.


Next month, the International Cricket Council (ICC) will meet again to decide on a qualification system for the 2015 World Cup.

It was initially mooted as a competition involving just the 10 full-member countries but such has been the criticism - entirely justified - from insiders and fans that Sharad Pawar, the ICC president, asked for a rethink.

Such introspection can't come soon enough. Italy won the football World Cup in 2006 but had to qualify to play in the 2010 event.

So why should cricket bend over backwards to accommodate its old boys, some of whom have third-rate teams?

Why should Zimbabwe - barred from the Test table - be given a free lunch in the one-day arena?

More than breaking up the ugly cartel, it's imperative that cricket safeguards the interests of its developing nations. Ireland have starred at two consecutive World Cups, while Afghanistan's meteoric rise through the ranks is beautifully charted in Out of the Ashes, directed by Tim Albone and Lucy Martens.

I first watched them play at the Police Grounds in Mumbai in March 2006. Most of them had picked up the game in refugee camps in Pakistan, and plenty of balls disappeared on to Mumbai's Western Railway suburban line as they thrashed an MCC side led by Mike Gatting that day.

The documentary traces their attempt to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. Having started out in Division 5 of the World Cricket League, they came within one win of making it.

The passion of men like Taj Malik, their first coach, shines through in the film, and if they're not even given a chance to qualify for 2015, the ICC should hang its head in shame.