x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Qatar's bid victory should give India hope for future

The fact Qatar won the right to host the World Cup in 2022 means the subcontinent could be a potential future venue.

India, in blue, were defeated 5-0 by UAE in a friendly in Dubai last month, illustrating how far behind other Asian nations they are in footballing terms. 

Satish Kumar / The National
India, in blue, were defeated 5-0 by UAE in a friendly in Dubai last month, illustrating how far behind other Asian nations they are in footballing terms. Satish Kumar / The National

Given the Indian media's current preoccupation with various political scams and journalistic misdemeanours, Fifa's decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup did not exactly stop presses.

A few newspapers have syndication agreements with British publications, and it was English humiliation from their failed bid that featured more prominently.

Not that many Indians bought into the sense of outrage in the old country about the tournament going to Russia in 2018.

"I am fully aware that there's corruption, and so were England and the rest of the world," said a friend. "England played by the rules of that game. They just got outplayed by the Russians."

Less has been said about Qatar because most people here are simply not aware of the facts that made the tiny emirate such a controversial choice ahead of the United States.

It's the first time in the game's history that the competition has gone to a country that has neither a reputation as a football power nor any previous experience on the big stage.

That politics played their part in the decision is beyond dispute. One of my former editors attended the AFC annual awards in Kuala Lumpur a week ago, and had mentioned how all the buzz and rumours centered around Mohamed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation chief who was supposedly contemplating a challenge to Sepp Blatter if Qatar's bid were unsuccessful.

That's one side of the story. Backed by the expertise of Mike Lee, an Englishman who once worked with Uefa and was overlooked as part of the team bidding to bring football to the Gulf in 2018, Qatar put together a brilliant presentation.

Their promise to dismantle nine of the stadiums after the tournament and rebuild them in less-privileged nations also struck a chord with many.

The prospect of the first Middle Eastern World Cup will be, without doubt, a huge fillip for football in the region. A generation of youngsters who have just started kicking a ball around will first aspire to make a name for themselves in the Qatar Stars League and then strive on in the hope that they can score a famous World Cup goal on home soil, as Ahn Jung-hwan did for South Korea in 2002.

The decision to grant hosting rights to a country that has never gone beyond the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup also offers hope for South Asia, where people can scarcely imagine their national sides competing at the highest level. India, Qatar's next opponents in a friendly, are one such nation, a one-time continental power who were thumped 9-1 by Kuwait and 5-0 by the UAE last month.

There's certainly no shortage of talent at the lower age-group level, but what's missing is a system that can identify the precocious ones and give them the step up that they need. Training facilities and methods are primitive and the same business houses that sink money into Blackburn Rovers and talk of investing in Newcastle United or Liverpool do little for the game at grass roots.

If playing standards are the sole criteria, India won't host a World Cup in my lifetime. But if by giving the tournament to Qatar, Fifa is implying that growing the game is just as important as consolidating interest in the traditional strongholds, then a subcontinent-based World Cup or one hosted by South-east Asia nations becomes a possibility.

Good governance, something that Indian football is hardly renowned for, is essential if such dreams are to become reality. For starters, India needs a league that people will watch, not one where successful teams such as Mahindra United close up shop because it's not worth their while to play. Enlisting a marquee name or two, even those on the cusp of retirement, may not be a bad policy, and it will need to be marketed as well as Lalit Modi's cricket brainchild, the Indian Premier League.

After that, it's imperative that India host an Asian Cup. Their appearance in the 2011 tournament in Qatar next month will be their first since 1984, and they owe that to the back-door entry provided to winners of the AFC Challenge Cup.

But while countries such as Singapore and Lebanon have hosted the event in the 54 years since the first one was played in Hong Kong, India never have. Without ticking that box - Qatar first hosted the Asian Cup in 1988 - any thoughts of staging a World Cup are merely fanciful.

By 2022, Qatar could well have a team capable of competing with the best. How they won the bid is irrelevant now.

If Indian football is ever to glimpse the glory days, they need to watch Qatar closely and see all the plans that they put in place. It's time to start playing catch-up.