Mehtab Hossain: I-League-ISL merger will help Indian football

"After the ISL arrived, there have been a lot of changes in Indian football. A lot of good players have come up, Indian players. They are able to play with and against good foreign players and that is helping them. I personally feel that the two leagues should merge and come up with a six-month long format to keep up the standard," the Kerala Blasters midfielder says.

Mehtab Hossain announced his retirement from international football after winning 29 caps and scoring two goals.   -  K V Srinivasan

Mehtab Hossain was a dynamic young attacking midfielder when he signed for East Bengal in 2007. He has come a long way since then, having made over 100 appearances for the “Red and Gold Brigade” and has also adapted to a more defensive role. He was drafted as the first pick of the domestic player auction by the Kerala Blasters in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League. Mehtab has established himself as a vital cog in the Blasters’ midfield and he is hoping they overcome their early season woes to gatecrash into the play-offs.

Question: After last season’s run all the way to the final, what do you think has gone wrong this time round?

Answer: After winning our opening game, we went on a winless streak for a while and all of us were very disappointed. But we started in a similar vein last season and picked up momentum towards the end of the campaign. This season we have been slightly unlucky. We have been playing a good brand of attacking football and have dominated games, but didn’t get the wins in the end. If we had started playing like this from the beginning, we would not be in this position right now. I hope we get maximum points from the remaining games and qualify for the play-offs. I’m a firm believer of “It isn’t over until it’s over” so there is still a lot of belief.

Terry Phelan took over after Peter Taylor’s departure. How has the change in management helped?

Each coach has his own philosophies and their approach towards players differs. Some coaches are strict and rigid while others like to let players express themselves more. Peter was a bit defensive minded. Terry goes with “Attack is the best form of defence” and he wants us to take more risks. He does not mind conceding goals as long as we attack and score ourselves. This is probably why we have been scoring more in our last few games.

The Blasters had David James last season. This season it was Carlos Marchena. But after his exit, there is no marquee player in the team. Do you think this has had any effect on the team?

No, nothing of that sort. In the end, all that matters is the unity of the team. If there is no unity in the team, it will not be a team anymore. However big a player you sign, he is also part of this team. Just because there are a bunch of marquee players in one team doesn’t mean that team will make it to the final directly.

One of your former East Bengal coaches Philippe De Ridder converted you from an attacking midfielder to a defensive one. What was the reason behind this?

When De Ridder came to East Bengal, he did not have a lot of options in the defensive midfield position. He saw that the defensive side of my game was pretty good and I could also pick out players with diagonal balls. I’m glad I proved myself to him in that position and glad that he put me there because my career has gone only upwards after that. I was named the Best Midfielder and the Best Indian Player in the I-League in 2010-11. Sometimes changes occur in life, and they are for the best.

How did you feel about this new role?

Everyone likes to score goals and it helps in building your confidence. In my case, I feel happier when I assist my team-mates to score goals. Even when I was a kid, I used to feel happier when I created goals rather than scoring them myself. Goal-scorers will always get the plaudits but I feel the creator of the goal deserves equal credit.

You announced your retirement from international football earlier this year. What were your reasons?

When Wim Koevermans was the coach of the national team, I was playing well and he selected me for most of his squads. After Stephen Constantine came, he did not select me for the World Cup qualifiers despite my good performances. I also wanted to focus more on club football.

Where do you feel the national team can improve? When can they realistically expect to qualify for a World Cup?

They won their last match against Guam and they are doing decently. But there are some problems. Every squad for every tournament has new players. It is difficult to build an understanding if there are different players for every match. They should retain a core of players for at least five years so that they get a chance to play together. The Spanish national team retained the same group of players for a certain period and look at the success it brought them.

Everybody is talking about grassroots football. Our grassroots system is extremely poor. Unless that is upgraded and brought to an acceptable level, we will not progress. I hope that our team at the under-17 World Cup will do well. If they do well, they should keep this group of players together. They will have better chances to qualify for future World Cups. It (qualification) has to happen some day and I’m sure it will happen soon.

Do you see the ISL and the I-League merging in the near future?

After the ISL arrived, there have been a lot of changes in Indian football. A lot of good players have come up, Indian players. They are able to play with and against good foreign players and that is helping them. I personally feel that the two leagues should merge and come up with a six-month long format to keep up the standard.

Almost 60,000 people come to watch the Kerala Blasters play. No one turns up to watch I-League matches; maybe only for the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan derby. They don’t even come to watch the national team play. That is the problem in India. If you show people the glitz and glamour, they will turn up.

Six months seems like an ideal duration to hold a football league in India. If it extends beyond that, I don’t think people will come. The common Indian does not have much patience these days so the shorter the format the better. There is a lot of pressure on players in a three month format. Travelling and playing every three to four days takes its toll and chances of injuries increase. By increasing the duration, injuries will decrease and high playing levels will also be maintained.