Faltering & Floundering: Indian Football Seeks Succour Amid Hype

Is India really the sleeping giant in football?

Updated
Sports
3 min read
 Pele with former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly and Atletico de Kolkata team owner Sanjiv Goenka during an event in Kolkata. (Photo: PTI)

The flashbulbs have been going off incessantly. And why not? The greatest of them all, Pele himself, is in India. There’s a photo-op to be had at every step. Look, he even has a formula to revive Indian football. Listen up.

You have to give players the chance to go abroad and play and gain experience. They can then come here and share their experiences. But, firstly, you have to support the base. You should have football in universities, schools and colleges. It is important to start the sport at the right level.
— Pele

Legendary Brazilian footballer Pele greets West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a function in Kolkata on Monday. (Photo: PTI)
Legendary Brazilian footballer Pele greets West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a function in Kolkata on Monday. (Photo: PTI)

Duh? Those are well-meaning words, but really, do you need Pele to tell you this?

Look around these days and the buzz around Indian football is unmistakable. Pele is here after nearly four decades. Maradona and Messi have come visiting too. There’s the high-octane ISL, with its flamboyant film star and cricketer owners. And in a couple of years, the Under-17 World Cup will come to India.

The ‘sleeping giant’, to use FIFA boss Sepp Blatter’s catchphrase, seems to be rising from its slumber.

Atletico de Kolkata (red and white) and Kerala Blasters FC players in action during an ISL match in Kolkata. (Photo: PTI)
Atletico de Kolkata (red and white) and Kerala Blasters FC players in action during an ISL match in Kolkata. (Photo: PTI)

But is it really?

On Tuesday, the national team suffered its fifth straight defeat in the World Cup qualifiers and is now firmly at the bottom of its group. Not only did India capitulate 0-3 to Oman, they barely had a shot at goal all match. This latest humiliation follows defeats to Turkmenistan, Iran and – hold your breath – Guam.

Sunil Chhetri during a training session. (Photo: PTI)
Sunil Chhetri during a training session. (Photo: PTI)

Yes, Guam – a little island in the western Pacific Ocean spread over 540 kilometres with a population of a bit over 160,000.

Guam beat India at football.

Go to FIFA.com and look up team rankings. At the moment, India is ranked at 167, sandwiched between the Cook Islands and Mauritius.

To list the litany of problems that afflict the Indian game would be to replay a broken record. For a snapshot, just recall events that have unfolded in recent months. They tell a sordid tale.

Indian football team in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (Photo: PTI)
Indian football team in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (Photo: PTI)

National coach Stephen Constantine requested the All India Football Federation to release players early from club duty for a longer preparation camp. He was rebuked. FIFA rules, he was reminded, mandate that players need to be released only 72 hours before a game.

Constantine had argued that unlike European leagues where players come from stronger competitions and are hence ready for internationals, Indian players need more time to adjust. His plea was rejected. The Englishman was also censured for publicly saying that a strong domestic league lasting 7-8 months would help build a better national team.

Atletico de Kolkata players with the ISL trophy in the first season. (Photo: Indian Super League)
Atletico de Kolkata players with the ISL trophy in the first season. (Photo: Indian Super League)

In essence, Indian football is eschewing the brick and mortar needed to construct the edifice. Glitzy competitions and high-profile visits are a welcome diversion, but the stark reality of a decline, bordering on free fall, is all too apparent.

Surely tiny Guam won’t beat India in the return leg in New Delhi on November 12.

Surely not?

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