The Fall & Rise of Indian Football – A New Era Beckons.
“We’re working for a victory. In football there are no impossible missions. Our opponents are very strong with experience. We are going to fight every moment, for the results.”
~Luis Norton, India U17 Football Team Coach
The meteoric rise of Indian football in the past few years may have had hugely baffled the sports pundits around the world, but such a development was always a mere matter of time. For a nation which houses more than 18% of the world’s total population, it would be surprising if it didn’t eventually mark its presence on the map of global football. Realistically speaking though, India is decades behind the powerhouses of Asian and European football and the most probable cause comes out to be the administrative fallacies and dilapidated youth football structure at the grassroots level. Time and time again, football stars of our country have been at the receiving end of the backlash faced by Indian football due to the overwhelming level of under performance, but can the players really be blamed. To put this on a better perspective, back in May 2017, three players of the national side playing for East Bengal FC had to travel in unreserved train compartments just after an important derby match against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan, which is just one of the many examples to show the decayed state of affairs subsisting in the Indian football regime. Such an environment is quite exasperating considering the fact that some other sports in the country, especially cricket in particular has become a billion dollar industry and the primary reason is less the affection of fans and more the independent framework in the echelon of the boardroom decisions. Without an iota of doubt, the Indian Football has come a long way and even though a comparison with a sport like cricket is far-fetched, a different outlook for the team is surely on the cards.
In the last couple of years, there has been a substantial corporate investment coming in from multi-national conglomerates like Hero Motocorp, Coca-Cola, Nike and previously Panasonic which has helped Indian Football gain some momentum with plethora of friendlies sneaking its way in the football calendar of AIFF and opportunities for international exposure to youth and junior level players. However the good times didn’t knock its door that easy. Back in 2013, the AIFF almost found itself in a no-man’s land when no partners or sponsors were willing to financially support the Indian team due to its consistent sub-standard performances. But the floodgates finally opened up for India through partnerships with IMG- Reliance and the introduction of the Indian Super League in late 2013, along with the aging I-League which finally refueled the interest of the masses in the Indian football. With a crop of top level players, coaches and managers approaching India to ply their trade, Indian football is at last seeing some well deserved shiny days after decades of dark clouds hovering around its sustenance. Apart from the decent investment pouring in for Indian football, another factor which has been pivotal in this spectrum is the growing involvement of Indian players with foreign clubs. Indian stars like Chetri, Bhutia and Subrata have surely been an inspiration for this generation but it the gamut of young blazing guns which is indeed firing the stereotypes of Indian football. Football stars like Gurpreet Sandhu who previously played in the Norwegian Cup for Stateback FC or Romeo Fernandes who became the first player to play in the top league of Brazil with Atletico Paranaense have certainly set sights in the right direction for the young aspirants, though it would imprudent to get overenthusiastic as the majority of these chances came in state competitions and not in the elite leagues. Nonetheless, these are significant achievements, and it would be an understatement to consider them as a marketing ploy for the foreign clubs to tap in the potential of the Asian market. A lot of Indian origin players and Indian born players are also being provided a chance to play for youth academies of top-flight clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool and such associations has surely raised the bar of Indian football by striking the perfect cords.
In a recent report, highlighted by Mint, Test Cricketer Deep Dasgupta was quoted saying that he was mocked upon by an irritated English fan in a pub in London while he and his friends were watching a world cup game between England and Argentina because the English fan disliked the cricketer’s support for Argentina. The English fan was apparently caught saying that “Even if there were three world cups (with 36 teams) going on simultaneously, you still wouldn’t be playing in either of them”. Such a behavior is unfortunately true cause till 2015; India lingered in the measly lower rungs of the Fifa Coca-Cola –Rankings. Statistically, they were a horrendous 171 in Feb, 2015 but have since overturned their fortunes, largely due to the arrival of Stephan Constantine back in the folds of Indian Football and are now ranked 107th in the world after reaching an high of 96th in July, 2017.
Putting this in perspective and the past few results (India were actually on a nine-match winning streak), it can be deduced that the ‘phoenix’ of Indian Football has risen up from the ashes and is raring to go places. There might be harsh criticism as to the quality of opponents and number of friendlies India play on a regular basis (three in 2017), yet it is quintessential to keep the bandwagon on the right track. The paradigm shift in the ideological and psychological buildup of the Indian Football is quite evident in the slew of recent performances against Puerto Rico and Kyrgyzstan where India dominated the show. Consequently, India now stands at a better footing as compared to its neighbors and few other nations but still needs to up its ante to match shoulders with the best.
Taking nothing away from the team and its management, All India Football Federation should also be lauded to some extent for the efforts they have put in to improve the deplorable condition of Indian football. These include schemes like ‘Mission 11 Million’, a school sports outreach program, ‘AIFF Grassroots Program’ and numerous other programs along with Foreign Youth Academies, IMG-Reliance, NGO’s and other Local or International organizations. Though the team on field performance cannot be completely replicated as the administration footholds which were clogged due to maladministration for such a long time that to see a major overhauling change, it would surely take years. Nonetheless, these schemes along with the path-breaking ‘strategic plan’ released by AIFF recently, and are definitely mold-breaker, but what needs to be seen if the strong objectives on paper can be reflected in the on-field targets.
On 6th of October, 2017, India’s name was forever etched in the history books of World Football. For the very first time in its long footballing legacy, India managed to grab the opportunity of hosting an FIFA sanctioned event and that too, a World Cup. AIFF spirited bid was accepted by the top brass of FIFA Executive Committee on 5th December, 2013, a day that would be remembered as the day when the sleeping giant of world football finally started to open its eyes. Couple this with India’s bid for the upcoming U-20 World Cup in 2019, shows that the nation is ready to immerse itself in the flow of world football. The only roadblock seems to be the practice of FIFA moving different continents for consecutive world level football tournaments. Considering the last U19 World Cup took place in the beautiful country of South-Korea, there is a certain possibility that India’s bid might get rejected in favor of a new destination. Albeit, if everything goes according to the plans of Praful Patel led AIFF, India will deservedly become the host of the U19 World Cup as till today, it is the only nation to bid for the biggest youth tournament in football before the final deadline on November 1st. Add to this the FIFA Executive Committee coming to India and AIFF making a lobby for its efforts, India looks all set to continue the football mania of U17 World Cup in 2019.
These times are momentous for the India’s U17 team coached by the experienced Portuguese Luis Norton De Matos along with his close aids Hugo Martins and Paulo Grilo even though India bowed out of the prestigious quadrennial tournament on their home turf in the group stages. The loss against the much fancied rivals in USA, Colombia and Ghana is not something to be taken as a bitter pill because these nations have a strong footballing history unlike India who have appeared in a FIFA World Cup for the very first time across any format. Our young colts put up a spirited performance against Team USA in their very first match but came up short against the towering US team who commanded the match tactically from the first whistle as the nerves never gave out the Indian dug out. A few missed chances off the woodwork cost India dearly but the performances of the Indian stars like Komal, Jeakson, Boris, Anwar, Dheeraj and Rahim were praiseworthy in the end. In the second match against the athletic Colombians, India had its golden moments of greatness and created numerous chances which culminated in India’s first ever goal in a World Cup Tournament, scored by Jeakson off a wonderful header. But the celebrations were short lived as India conceded the very next minute to Penaloza sheer pace and charismatic counter-attack. At the end, India went down to the Colombians in a tad unconvincing fashion but the abilities of the Indian midfield and wings was finally coming out of the closet. With two matches down, India needed to win their last encounter against the mighty Ghana to secure an outside chance for qualifying towards the Round of 16. But there were no more fairy tales as India was rather tamed by their physically superior opponents who never gave India a chance to bounce back thus keeping them at heels throughout the match. The events transpired out contrary to India’s expectations but the fans should find solace in the fact that India has finally seen its best generation of incredible football players.
U17 World Cup trophy was a far-fetched dream but the boys in blue came out all guns blazing and proved their mettle in front of the home crowd who turned out in large number to support their wonderful team. India showed their credibility at the end of the group stages and it would not be possible without the die-hard fans flocking towards the six magnificent six venues in an all-time high average audience ratio throughout the history of U17 World Cup( Total On-Field Viewership has crossed a Million, Khel Now Report 2017 and recognized by tournament director, Javier Ceppi). We all should keep our heads high and take delight in the fact that the world has finally realized the potential of Indian Football. Back in their home turf, the young face of India has played some magical football in the past few years and the future looks glistening with their preparation for the AFC U19 Championship Qualifiers fully on at a trotting pace. Seventeen players of the current U17 World Cup Squad who showed flashes of promise have been promoted to the senior U-19 team led by Floyd Pinto barring the two NRI’s of the squad Namit and Sunny who will be returning to their homelands. In consonance with the will of the head coach Matos, these stars of tomorrow will continue in the AIFF scheme of events and in line with that, have already been offered hefty contracts by the I-League and ISL sides. As Praful Patel puts it, “If we win the rights to host in two years, we cannot reinvent the wheel once more,” which means that this young crop should get enough exposure and playing time to help themselves develop in a coordinated unit. The speculation is also rife that Dheeraj, Komal and Anwar are being offered an opportunity to play on foreign soil after the scouts from clubs like Manchester United, Borussia Monchengladbach and Galatasaray got impressed by their skills in the ongoing tournament even though nothing is confirmed as of now.
Even if they win or lose, the young blue tigers are surely made up of champion class material and the time is ripe for them to be nurtured well in order to reach the pinnacle of football. The Senior Men team is also not far behind in this tourney and showed glimpses of excellence in their recent win against Macau in Bengaluru during the ongoing U17 World Cup to secure a direct qualification to the AFC Championship in 2019 for the very first time since 1984.
All in all, it looks that the grass is greener on our side and with a lot of talent being supplied to the national side from the north-eastern and southern regions of the country, it seems that this generation would finally be able to see India lay its hands on some coveted trophies of world football in the near future. What we must understand is that champions are not made in a day, they need to be blossomed through a system that has a structure to thrive in a country marred by corruption, bias and favoritism. As a nations, we do not need just another Bhutia or Chetri, we need hundreds and thousands of them playing football and living a dream in the remotest corners of the country.
‘Let Hope carry us Forward, Let the Feet do the Talking’