A dog’s dinner or worse!

Indian football’s slide started midway through the 1970s, never to be arrested, after all... The country’s major clubs are just as responsible for its football gloom as its national federation because finding and grooming talent — FIFA and its loyalists call it youth development — is alien to their nature.

Jubilant Minerva Punjab FC players carry the team owner, Ranjit Bajaj, following their triumph in the I-League earlier this year.   -  SAHIL NANDA

When Michael Jackson moonwalked, his fans simply went wild. But try coaxing and cajoling someone into going down Indian football’s memory lane and chances are you will have even the die-hard buff of the game rolling his eyes, consulting his wristwatch and remembering an important appointment a mile and a half away. That is not because you or I can’t sing like Jackson, but due in a large measure to the general impression that it is where history keeps repeating itself, tragedy having long been indistinguishable from farce.

The slide started midway through the 1970s, never to be arrested, after all. And as one started looking up one’s old, dog-eared notepads for this 40-year retrospective view, the boom of the voice in New Delhi that barred India from the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia — saying, in so many words, that the Indian Olympic Association preferred medal prospects to also-rans — came through clearly wherever you were.

It was World Cup time and no one had any use for something that had mostly been dismissed as a dog’s dinner. Or rather, the leftover of it. Indian football modestly pointed at a rise in its global ranking, its victory in the self-conducted Intercontinental Cup and its Asian Cup qualifying success. But you can’t fool all people for all time.

FIFA’s scheme of things being what it is, ratings rise if you keep playing muppets and winning, which explained both the trophy triumph and the ascent to the Asian Cup finals. What the national federation hid from us was that India had once played an Asian Cup final (1964). The IOA’s rejection of the All-India Football Federation’s Asian Games request, even though the AIFF was game for picking up the tab, was a throwback to the event’s Hiroshima edition (1994) when football was similarly tackled.

But the 2018 snub drives home the fact that the AIFF chose not to learn its lesson and copped a repeat insult which essentially made it clear that the structural tinkering it had resorted to — the National League (1996) which later became the I-League, the Indian Super League (since 2014) imposed by its marketing whizkids — in the period being reviewed was so much sawdust.

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Chennaiyin FC, the ISL team, has overwhelming support from its fans, but both the leagues don’t seem to be carrying Indian football forward.   -  H. VIBHU

 

None of it went even halfway towards altering the truth that, after more than a century of playing the game, having been the first Asian country to make an Olympic football semi-final (1956), won two Asian Games gold medals (1951, 1962), we got nowhere near the World Cup since the AIFF began centralising its tournament organisation. Truth to tell, what became increasingly, and alarmingly, clear was that it wasn’t even interested in building on the successes it had achieved in the past even though the competitive field was getting wider and proportionately tougher as West Asians, Central Asians and, later, Australia too got in.

The Federation Cup kicked off in 1977 and the other competitions followed, complete with sponsorship and television coverage, and the AIFF maintained the expressionless calm of a pin cushion as the most important contests in the land grew alarmingly anaemic. Ruin followed. When was the last time you — or Mumbai — heard of the Rovers Cup being held?

Given that the Indian Army is committed to carrying on with the Durand Cup, it only limps on. New Delhi hasn’t seen a final of it at its Ambedkar Stadium for some time. It has a peripatetic existence now, like a travelling circus. Going by some reports, its forthcoming edition could be held in Kolkata. But in that eastern Indian metropolis, its own Indian Football Association Shield, where all major teams wanted to do their best at one time, is edged out of the bigtime calendar by the big-noise shows of the national federation now. It trudges on as an under-18 tournament, largely ignored even by the local press, which is aware of the age-faking that goes self-defeatingly on.

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Bhaichung Bhutia (centre) showed immense promise and even figured in the Bury FC team in England. But he had an unremarkable stint there.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

More of that, later, but the point about the virtual withering away of India’s traditional football platforms, which supplied us with a plentitude of talent in happier days, is that it throws into sharp relief the vapid thinking behind the gigs thought up during the period we survey. When the National League kicked in even as the Federation Cup was showing signs of being fearful of the tackles put in by Time, it was part of the guff of Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, then AIFF chief, that we needed to modernise the game in this country. But he could raid only the public sector’s treasury, among whose custodians were people scared of his political or, worse, ministerial power.

Asked, by this correspondent, how he proposed to persuade corporate houses to part with their cash for Indian football, Dasmunsi, who was only nurturing yet another constituency in the time-worn and weather-beaten manner of a hard-boiled power-grabber unencumbered by scruples, once said: “The press is central to it because it can create an ambience of hope.” Shorthand for PR work, that. He knew he wouldn’t be spoken to again.

But if you care to look at the way things have unfolded, huge chunks of the corporate sector, put off by the way the AIFF has gone about its business, have simply left the field. Orkay, Mafatlal, Mahindra and Mahindra, JCT Mills: the list can be lengthened without substantive additions. Government entities like Food Corporation of India have lowered their own profiles.

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Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri celebrates the win against Johor Darul Ta'zim (MAS) in the AFC Cup 2016 second leg semifinals in Bengaluru. Chhetri, also the Indian captain, has also been with Sporting Lisbon B in Portugal and Kansas City, USA.   -  PTI

 

The ISL was yet another ill-conceived project, with its qualitative appeal predicated on has-beens, regardless of how big they once were. In football, you lose a lot when you lose a yard of time-specific pace. We can’t afford the players China targets — and gets. AIFF vice-president Subrata Dutta was ecstatic before it started, speaking of being able to “sell” Indian football at long last. All insiders realise now that it’s not really a success story. When it comes to sport, people don’t come rushing in to pick up any junk laid attractively out.

But India’s major clubs are just as responsible for its football gloom as its national federation because finding and grooming talent — FIFA and its loyalists call it youth development — is alien to their nature. Matt Busby deemed it his primary job in Manchester United. We, surrounded and shepherded by smartypants, take the existence of talent in our teams, national, regional or whatever, for granted and proceed accordingly.

“Yes, that’s true,” says Arun Ghosh, 1962 gold winner who later coached India and was chief of the Tata Football Academy. “We’ve never had a scientific approach to scouting and training. Things are really bad today, because India let themselves down in the U-17 World Cup and unless we shift our attention from getting up blockbusters to working at the grassroots level, we’ll deteriorate progressively.”

That rampant age-faking, allegedly pioneered by Bengal in the 1970s and continuing to this day, in its quest for national-level glory, scuttles whatever is attempted in terms of learning and progressing is another area of darkness. Decades ago, Sailen Manna, a former Olympian who’s no more, told yours truly: “If you want to kill the game, let age-fakers loose.”

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Bengaluru FC goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been in the ranks of Stabeak in Norway and has also turned out in a Europa League qualifier.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

But Indian football lives. And it will do so because it gives us intermittent glimpses of excellence that impress everyone. In 2001, India edged 1-0 past the United Arab Emirates, coached by Henri Michel, in a World Cup qualifier. Bengaluru FC made the Asian Confederation Cup final in 2016; in 2008, Dempo Sports Club got as far as its semifinal, beating several West Asian teams on the way. East Bengal won the Asean Club Cup in 2003. Die-hard fans would also want India’s 2002 LG Cup victory in Vietnam, its runner-up finish in the one-off 2003 Afro-Asian Games, its 2008 AFC Challenge Cup victory listed here, along with a few Nehru Cup triumphs.

But India’s jewel-in-the-crown tournament had already been diminished, with invitations being extended only to those who wouldn’t really make us look like fools. We grew tall by walking on platform heels. If Bhaichung Bhutia, as captain, endorsed the ploy, it might have been down to his own unremarkable stint with Bury FC on a three-year deal in 1999. He was the first player from independent India to find a club in England, though.

Surajit Sengupta, without really trying, had landed an opportunity in West Asia after the 1978 Asian Games which he didn’t take, but Sunil Chhetri later made his way to Sporting Lisbon B in Portugal and Kansas City, USA. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has gone the farthest of all, joining Stabeak in Norway in 2014 and playing a Europa League qualifier in June 2016.

All of which could mean that if India had yet to gift its Ronaldos and Messis to the world, it hadn’t got around to chancing upon them. To reiterate what has already been iterated, that’s the central problem. Even George Best wouldn’t have happened if Busby’s scouts hadn’t kept an eye peeled. Maybe things would change some day. Meanwhile, let us sing “We shall overcome” lustily, loudly.