A shot in the arm

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

The captain of the Indian football team Baichung Bhutia with the LG Cup after defeating Vietnam 3-2 in the final.-PTI

A tournament win is big news in Indian football, starved as it is of any noteworthy conquests for quite some time now. An Asian Games gold medallist in the inaugural year in 1951 in New Delhi and again in 1962 at Jakarta formed the proud record of Indian football until the 60s. The next high was the joint holder status with host Iran in the Asian Junior championship in 1974. Ever since, Indian football has never risen to any appreciable heights barring the ups and downs in the South Asian region, where competition in any case is at an abysmally low level when compared to Asia as a whole.

For the record, India is the current holder of the SAFF Cup, the last edition of which was held three years ago in Goa. Considering this, a title-win in the six-nation LG Cup in Ho Chi Minh City in August assumed the proportion of a celebration. Many even went to the extent of describing this as a renaissance in the country's soccer for not in the last near three decades has the national team won a tournament outside the sub-continental region.

The latest reasoning was also to do with the way the AIFF was assiduously conducting the National Football League and also giving the junior development programme a thrust that had been long overdue. If administrative apathy was pin-pointed for the lacuna earlier in getting together a dynamic programme to push Indian football forward, the effort as the new millennium approached was to regain some lost ground. The introduction of the National Football League gave a new direction to club football. It provided an opportunity for Indian players to rub shoulders with the overseas players — some of whom may not have had a big name in their homeland but were nonetheless instant hits here. Like Jose Barreto, the Brazilian, who is currently the highest paid foreign player in Indian football, but it is a moot point if he could have tasted similar success back home. The point is these players, by virtue of being far ahead of the Indians in terms of ball skills, could inject positive ingredients into the Indian game, which were missed earlier.

The Mohun Bagan team which won the sixth Tata NFL football championship at Margao.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Be that as it may, one other key reason for the sudden touch of optimism in Indian football was the re-entry of Bhaichung Bhutia after a three-year stint with English second division club Bury. As the first Indian to get the English league exposure and despite spending a lot of time recuperating from knee injury and then surgery, Bhutia showed when he turned out for the national team and thereafter for the club he chose (Mohun Bagan) that he had honed his skills overall. He is easily the most exciting talent seen in Indian football for a long time. The thing about him is his insatiable hunger for improvement and the realisation that if he had to rise in the game, then India would not be the best place but any other country, which had a rich football tradition. Even as a 16-year-old, Bhutia had given indication of being an uncut diamond, requiring polishing at the right hands. The Kolkata maidan provided him the launch pad. Sparingly used initially and then turning into a livewire of his team, be it East Bengal or JCT or as now Mohun Bagan, it was Bhutia who inspired India's victorious moments in the LG Cup tournament, that triggered a series of good performances by the national team. It was just as well that around this time India decided on signing the Englishman Stephen Constantine as the national coach and the overseas expert started his Indian tenure on a bright note.

The LG Cup tournament was meant to be part of an exercise to build up an Indian Under-23 team for the Busan Asian Games. With a few seniors added to a bunch of rookies, the Englishman could mould the players on the theory of playing hard. "Playing nasty football", as he would call it. Fitness was the prime need for his experiment even as he discouraged the players from playing safe, while asking them to exert more and play tough. The Vietnam success, he believed, was because of this regimen. A feature of India's performance in Vietnam was that the country did not lose a match. It started shakily against Singapore but escaped with a 2-2 draw. But that match brought to fore the effectiveness of Bijen Singh and Tomba Singh on the left flank while Samir Naik was in focus on the right. Then again, Alex Ambrose and Abhishek Yadav shone as they combined smartly with the spearhead, Bhutia. Against Vietnam U-23, India finished 3-1 with Bhutia, Tomba and Yadav entering the scorebook.

India's best then came in the semi-final against Indonesia. Bhutia and Venkatesh combined to split open the Indonesian defence as early as in the sixth minute of the match. Bhutia was once again in striking mood to put India ahead. Devjit Ghosh and Bijen added to that as India stormed into the final. With Bhutia unstoppable, India was able to stun the Vietnam seniors in what was an amazing comeback from a 0-2 situation by the 20th minute. Bhutia struck twice and Constantine's prescription of `nasty football' came into play as the Indians went about fearlessly to restore parity. It was left to Yadav to knock in the winner, minutes before the final whistle and a famous win had been completed for old timers to talk eloquently of Indian football's future.

That the Vietnam good turn was not a passing phase but the start of a new order came through vividly when India played Jamaica next during the short England tour. Losing once and then a goalless draw against the famed rival, which had the experience of participating in the World Cup final round, thrilled even the relatively new observer like Constantine, who was quick to uphold this result as "better than the LG Cup victory". The good tidings for India continued when it split honours against Uzbekistan in a two-match series at home. Bhutia once again came up with a top-notch performance to slot two goals for the victory against Uzbekistan, the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games gold medallist.

The Manipur team, winner of the Santosh Trophy.-S. PATRONOBISH

For Bhutia this was easily one of the most productive phases of his career. Not only did he shine and prove that his mended knee had perfectly healed, but took on his shoulders the job of pushing India into the zone where it got noticed. Nine goals in five matches including for his Kolkata club, Mohun Bagan in the AFC Champions league had even the Asian body watching in admiration. His two goals each in India's win over Bangladesh and Turkmenistan in the Busan Asian Games added further lustre to his achievement. Not surprisingly AFC picked him as the `Player of the month' for September. India failed to cross China for the quarter-final berth in Busan but overall, for a team that had to go on its own and without any financial help from the Government, it was not a disappointing show. Certainly it has been a while since Indian football had seen such refreshing moments.

Equally forthright in their approach and significant in their performance were the Under-17 and Under-20 squads, both of which did the country proud by qualifying for the final round of the respective Asian championship. By a coincidence both these squads failed at the quarter-final stage at the hands of the ultimate winner — South Korea. The juniors who have been under the systematic training of Uzbek, Islam Akhmedov, even provided enough food for thought in Asian circles on India's junior football development. That Indians figured in the respective All-Star teams is ample evidence of the growing strength at the grassroots level, particularly in the northeast region. Malsawma and Jerry Zirsanga, two mid-fielders, were named in the Under-17 All-Star team while midfielder Bungo Singh found his name in the Under-20 section. As per AFC Secretary-General, Peter Vellappan's line of action, the players of the two All-Star teams could benefit from specialised coaching that AFC plans for them in association with a leading European Club.

The All India Football Federation, too, has plans to give its `Vision 2004' and `Project 2006' — both elaborate plans to prepare Indian teams for various international tournaments ahead — a new thrust after the heart-warming exhibition by the Under-23, Under-20 and Under-17 teams. The realisation that proper planning could yield results had come not a day too soon for the AIFF. Its President, Priyaranjan Das Munshi gave an insight of what the parent body was thinking ahead by announcing that the current Under-17 and Under-20 teams would be moulded into strong outfits keeping in view the 2004 Asian Games and 2006 World Cup qualifiers. Tall dreams but the young players have shown that through systematic training and adequate foreign exposure, India could come up to the Asian Confederation's expectations.

Then again, these are times when even at the National level, power equations are changing. With the AIFF bringing in the nativity rule, allowing players the option to represent their native State,, Manipur gained the most, by winning its first Santosh Trophy title.