After Bhutia, Chhetri?

Sunil Chhetri (No. 11) is emerging as India's flag-bearer.-S. SUBRAMANIUM Sunil Chhetri (No. 11) is emerging as India's flag-bearer.

One positive development from all this — the Asian Cup, the friendlies and thereafter the SAFF Cup — is the emergence of Sunil Chhetri as the premier player of the country. With Bhaichung Bhutia deciding to call it a day, Chhetri seems ready to step into the boots of the Sikkimese, who carved a niche for himself in the annals of Indian football. As in the case of Bhutia, Chhetri, who plays for Mohun Bagan in the I-league, too has some experience playing abroad in the U.S. (Kansas Wizards) and has also received feelers from Scottish and British clubs. Over to S.R. Suryanarayan.

For a country which wallows in the 160s in FIFA rankings (162 by the latest count), progress in football is but a misnomer. True there have been a few sparks here and there, but overall it has been a gloomy picture for Indian football. Unlike in the past when money was an issue and which led to several top-rated football tournaments in the country disappearing from the scene, Indian football appears to be in better health financially. Nothing else has changed.

Thanks to coach Bob Houghton, the senior team had several international trips (read exposure), played quite a few friendlies and yet what was the outcome from all this? Not any jump in India's rankings, but the ouster of Houghton. Though the international trips or his handling of the team had nothing to do with his exit, in fact, players in general spoke highly of his involvement, knowledge and efforts to improve the standards, an alleged racial slur proved his undoing. Though nothing was proved, Houghton decided it was wiser to safeguard his reputation than expect fresh gains from Indian football.

Houghton's exit had come at a time when many believed that he could give some direction to the sport in the country and also help strengthen the self-belief in the players, like the success in getting India a passage to the Asian Cup championship after a 27-year gap. It is a different matter that the main tournament in Doha in January proved a nightmare. Pitted in the group that included Australia, South Korea and Bahrain, India proved to be the weakest and suffered three defeats. Still, observers were not prepared to write off India's performance. The three goals that India scored in the tournament, one against Korea and two against Bahrain, had touches of excellence. It was felt that not all was lost for India.

With Houghton gone, Armando Colaco — after his successful run with I-league champion team Dempo — was given the job, even if on a temporary basis. Soon he gave way to Savio Madeira, a former player and one who had been deputy to Houghton for long. Madeira took some credit for India's winning show in the SAFF Cup held in New Delhi. Beating Afghanistan in the final, after having managed a draw with the same team in the preliminary phase, cannot be considered a signal moment, but it was a win nonetheless. However, considering the status of the rival, Afghanistan, a country ravaged by war and yet able to put together a bunch of talent, stole the thunder.

Coach Karim Bencherifa (centre) has worked magic with Salgaocar.-PTI

One positive development from all this — the Asian Cup, the friendlies and thereafter the SAFF Cup —was the emergence of Sunil Chhetri as the premier player of the country. With Bhaichung Bhutia deciding to call it a day (another happening of the year), Chhetri seemed ready to step into the boots of the Sikkimese, who certainly carved a niche for himself in the annals of Indian football. As in the case of Bhutia, Chhetri, who plays for Mohun Bagan in the I-league, too had some experience playing abroad in the US (Kansas Wizards) and had also received feelers from Scottish and British clubs. Only time will tell if this 27-year-old, playing at his best now, will go far. For now, his deeds have been recognised by the AIFF, which selected him for the ‘Player of the Year 2011' award.

Yet another individual who came into the limelight was Salgaocar club's Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa. Karim had guided Salgaocar to I-league champion status after a 14-year hiatus. He had achieved a similar feat with Mohun Bagan earlier. AIFF was keen to hand him the national duty, but Salgaocar cited its contract to stop that. Be that as it may, the Karim touch was seen in the way Salgaocar progressed, getting past several heavyweights and cantering away with the title in the 14-team I-league, sparing six points to the former champion Dempo in the final analysis.

The promising notes of the year came from the junior ranks, as it should be. The U-16 and U-19 teams, both handled by Englishman Colm Toal, came into focus. While the U-16 squad qualified for the final round of the AFC 2012 championship, the U-19 boys failed by a whisker. Still, the youth development programme that Toal has been entrusted with, is raising hopes of better days ahead — a touch of optimism that keeps the interest in the sport going.