An intellectually stimulating seminar

THERE was an appreciable measure of realism in the discussions at the football seminar in Delhi recently. That FIFA and AFC were associated with it only added to the stature of the event, designed to focus on the plus and minus factors in Asia.

THERE was an appreciable measure of realism in the discussions at the football seminar in Delhi recently. That FIFA and AFC were associated with it only added to the stature of the event, designed to focus on the plus and minus factors in Asia. Understandably, India was debated on and dissected by the speakers who underlined its importance in the sub-continent and lamented how the country had let slip opportunities for building a solid base.

This is not the first time that the malaise afflicting Indian football has come in for a critical analysis. Factors contributing to the degeneration were rightly identified and remedies prescribed. But a speck of scepticism remains as to whether the suggestions mooted will percolate to the grassroots and create a climate for regeneration. It is anguishing to go back again and again to those golden moments in the Asian Games of 1951 in New Delhi and in 1962 at Jakarta. India had a headstart in the 50s against the leaders of the continent today, but progressively lost the grip purely on account of administrative inertia. Inured to the happenings in the domestic circuit and complacent over the few successes, the administration was a house divided even in the best of times.

Tragically, the focus remained on one centre, and, unfortunately, on a few clubs when the goal should have been to enriching the national profile. As the rest of the world marched towards scientific orientation and professionalism, India wallowed in a whirlpool of politics, polemics and puerile prejudices. The sequence of defeats in the continent to the point of finding it difficult even to get a place in the Asiads only accentuated the mood of pessimism. The repeated advocacy of professional management at the national level fell on deaf ears, and mistakes were repeated resulting in India ending up a non-entity.

That the realisation to reform has come about now is heartening but whether it is forceful enough to prompt a sharp change in the outlook is difficult to comprehend. True, the speakers, notably the Secretary General of the AFC, Peter Velappan, have stressed on the remedial measures but these can be accomplished only if the AIFF sets for itself a realistic time-frame. Too much ground has to be covered if the country is to catch up with Japan, China or Korea. It is absurd to even think of trying to host the World Cup, or even a major cup event in the near future. Needed are steps to revitalise the exisiting structure and elevating quality so that the crowd, the backbone for any progress, returns to the stands. It is sad but true that soccer is one sport in India that has lost the patronage of the spectators pushing top class tournaments into oblivion. The number of events in the limbo in a state like Kerala is testimony to the astonishing level of decadence.

It will be uncharitable to fix the blame only on AIFF for lacking in pragmatism. Even the state units are guilty of allowing the game to drift. Not always have the programmes of the federation got the acknowledgement they deserved. The indifference that crept into hosting the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru memorial tournament, which gave spectators an insight into the European and South American tactics and techniques in some measure, clearly snuffed out the emotional involvement of the audience, an essential ingredient for perking up national interest. Where the AIFF needs the stick is in regard to the inconsistency of programming, including the National Football League. Shackled by the need to accommodate various sectional interests, the federation began to frame competitions in fits and starts, thereby negating scientific growth.

Studied against this backdrop of irregularities and mismanagement, the New Delhi seminar did serve the guidelines for a properly structured development underscored by the warning that failure to learn the lessons will only hasten the journey to catastrophe. The writing is on the wall, and the crying need is to comprehend the dangers of inaction. The first step lies in injecting a noticeable element of professionalism in the administration, taking, if need be, the help of a foreign consultancy network recognised by FIFA. Whatever plans the AIFF undertakes after this intellectually stimulating seminar, it has to ensure an all-round growth from the base level.

Priority should be accorded to programming an annual bilateral series in different parts of the country. Imagine what will be the interest level in centres where soccer is popular if India manages to play five or six Tests against China, Korea or Japan, even if the results go badly against the home team. If something like this could be scheduled for the next five years, the results will definitely be rewarding. The time has come for AIFF to set the ball rolling.