Abhishek Yadav is a rarity in Indian football and has long been fighting an apathy for home-grown strikers.
Yadav is battling at the front alone
DUBAI // Abhishek Yadav is a rarity in Indian football. Like Ismail Matar and Faisal Khalil in the UAE, he is one of the few local strikers in the 12-team I-League where clubs are obsessed with big bulldozing foreign sharpshooters. "He has suffered in the three years that I have been in India by a phenomena that I think is special to Indian football," says Indian national team coach Bob Houghton, himself a prolific striker with Fulham in the 1960s.
"And that is that all the coaches and club leaderships spend so much of their funds bringing foreign front players. "It is very difficult for our Indian front players to play on a regular basis. Apart from Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chetri, there is really no Indian front player that is guaranteed to start." Son of a distinguished javelin thrower, Yadav is sharp inside the box. At 6ft 2in, he also has the height to put away the crosses.
He first caught the eye as a teenager playing in the local league in Mumbai. In his 10 years at the top, Yadav has been witness to Indian football's march towards professionalism. There is still a lot to be done but the player has seen some positive developments over the years. Things have been changing, he says, at both the national and club level. "Now we have a Football Players Association. Players can get themselves registered as members and they can seek any advice or whatever guidance they require from the association, which is headed by our captain Baichung Bhutia.
"The players now have started reading the contracts before signing it. Earlier, I personally know some players who didn't even read what they were signing. It is actually funny, but I can tell you that some players did not even know if they were signing a one-year or two-year contract. "Apart from that, I think things have been a lot more professional since the last two years. We have seen some of the clubs like Dempo and Mahindra United regularly qualifying for the AFC Cup."
There is still room for improvement and Yadav believes only a collective effort could help Indian football achieve their targets, despite the overbearing presence of cricket in the nation. "There is no point in competing with cricket," he says. "They have marketed the game very well. We need to follow their example and do the same. "What we need is a collective effort from all sides, the media, the federation, the clubs as well as the players. Our ultimate aim is to see Indian football going up, so I think if everyone does their bit in their respective fields, I think it will work.
"Everyone needs to come to a centre point and go ahead from there." The striker, who helped secure India's first trophy in 32 years on his international debut in the 2002 LG Cup, wants the game to reach a stage where it can be a realistic career option. "As football grows as a sport in India, I believe the youngsters will get motivated to pursue it as a career option," he says. "They can see players earning well and will they want to be there as well."