x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

India's football: a sad decline

As the country’s national team prepare to face Asia’s giants, our writer laments game’s lack of support.

India force a leaping save by Thailand’s goalkeeper during a sparsely attended international friendly in New Delhi last month.
India force a leaping save by Thailand’s goalkeeper during a sparsely attended international friendly in New Delhi last month.

Anyone who thinks that Indians don't take their football seriously did not spend time in Bengal, Kerala or Goa during World Cup month.

In these footballing hotbeds, interest in the exploits of Messi, Villa, Rooney and Kaka rivals the passion with which cricket is followed.

But enthusiasm wanes when it comes to supporting local sides. The teams Indian fans follow are the elite of world football from the major European leagues.

Unlike the cricket team, who sit proudly on top of the Test rankings, India's football team languishes in the lower reaches of the international game.

When the national side take on the might of Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in Qatar next January, it will mark the first time since 1984 that they have played in the Asian Cup.

The cynics will say that India probably don't deserve to be there, and they have a point. Had they been asked to negotiate a path through the qualifying rounds, they would almost certainly have been knocked out.

Instead, by winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, they earned a wildcard berth and a chance to take on three teams ranked in Asia's top five.

Gone are the days when there were packed galleries even for matches featuring local teams.

I-League matches struggle to attract even a couple of thousand people these days. With fans in most cities having access to football from Europe's major leagues through satellite television, few bother to head to the stadiums to watch second-rate foreigners and local talent play a brand of football that was obsolete three decades ago.

The fortunes of the national side have improved over the past decade, thanks largely to the efforts of two Englishmen, Stephen Constantine and Bob Houghton.

The best work that Constantine did was with the juniors. The Under 18s won the Ian Rush Trophy in Wales, while the senior side beat Vietnam in the LG Cup final and also came within a goal of making the last eight of the Asian Games in 2002.

By the end of his three-year tenure though, Constantine was fed up, especially with the appalling coaching standards at club and junior levels.

"We have coaches that have absolutely no idea what system they are using, why they are using that system, how to use that system and what happens if that system doesn't work," he said just before he left in 2005. "Take two 15-year-olds, one from England and the other from India. The English one has the basic understanding of the game like position and control whereas his Indian counterpart doesn't.

"We are playing catch-up. The European boys once they've represented the Under 17s are already knocking at the first rung of professional football. Our boys, on the other hand, when released from the national team, either go nowhere or clubs sign them and never play them."

An archaic contract system has to take much of the blame for the dismal state of the club game. "Nobody looks long-term," said Jamshed Nassiri, an Iranian who starred for various teams in the 1980s. "The player contracts are for just one year so each year you end up playing for a new team."

"Teams like Arsenal, Ajax, Barcelona, Milan have youth academies," said Constantine. "If these clubs see the need, how come we don't?"

Given such a background, is it realistic to expect even a goal from India in January?

Houghton, the national team coach, who once worked wonders with lowly Malmo, is certainly not encouraging any fanciful talk.

"There is a view that it will be good for Indian football as it will put ourselves in the spotlight and there will be a lot of interest and we will play against teams that have just played in the World Cup," he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

"Or you know it will show people where we really are and that might set the game back. We really are in the infancy of trying to become a football country."

India were Asian Games gold medallists in 1951 and '62. The story of the subsequent decline is inextricably linked to political appointments that have dragged every sport other than cricket to the nadir.

For Indian football to revive, it's too much to expect anything from these self-interested and corrupt men. Salvation may come instead from the likes of Barcelona, who have already set up an academy in the Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh. Hopefully, the wait for a Xavi or an Iniesta will not be interminably long.