India has lessons to learn

LOSING is nothing new to Indian football but winning is. And so when India's Under-23 squad bagged the LG Cup in Vietnam a couple of years ago, there was understandable euphoria, followed by a mood of elation when the India seniors reached the title round in the Afro-Asian Games.

LOSING is nothing new to Indian football but winning is. And so when India's Under-23 squad bagged the LG Cup in Vietnam a couple of years ago, there was understandable euphoria, followed by a mood of elation when the India seniors reached the title round in the Afro-Asian Games. For observers the performance of the Under-18 squad, which won the prestigious Ian Rush trophy tournament after making waves in the Milk Cup tournament earlier, indicated that the junior development programme was moving on desired lines. The common factor in all these was Stephen Constantine, the English coach, who was keen to give India a new image. The players themselves admit that his commitment towards them, their needs and improvement has never been in doubt.

But the disastrous show of the Indians in the pre-World Cup home-and-away matches in the last few months — the 5-1 loss to Oman in Kochi and then the 7-0 bashing against Japan in Saitama — saw some unsavoury remarks against the coach at AIFF's executive committee meeting. It is such impulsive reaction which Indian football can do without. Rome was not built in a day, similar is the case of building Indian football, soaked as it is in all sorts of contortions and contradictions, masked occasionally by the arrival of a foreign coach. It is here that Constantine has been different.

If one is to accept the observation of C.R. Visswanathan, the AIFF Vice-President, who was the chief of Indian delegation to Japan, the coach has being doing enough to shape a sense of unity in the side, and the virtues of fighting till the last. "The Indians did their best" was his assessment. It would be churlish to imagine that these qualities alone would be enough to unsettle teams like Japan and Oman for the simple reason that these countries have gone far ahead not only in rankings but in developing their players on systematic and scientific lines. From the way the Indians struggled in Japan it was clear, that man-to-man, they presented a pathetic sight. And the reason is not far to seek.

It is a well known fact that the Indians are an overworked lot. To expect high level of proficiency from each of them right through the year is asking for the moon. There is club responsibility on one side and then the call of national duty, both virtually overlapping. Constantine had time and again pointed to the need for rest to overcome niggling injuries that most of them often carry. But no club, which spends so much on the players can keep them off the playfield. Nor is the AIFF able to find a way to resolve this issue. In this lies the crux of misery.

The Medical Committee of the AIFF has recently come up with some interesting observations about the Indian players' weight-height ratio, which, it points out, compares poorly with players of other leading football nations. This is significant in this game where speed, weight, stability, reach and the ability to jump underline the qualities of efficiency. While it has called for a scientific tempering in the coaching schemes for football in the country, it would require a concerted effort from the parent body to give the matter the required thrust. Clearly strengthening the youth development programme has to be given the highest priority.

This is all the more necessary in the light of AFC's Vision Asia programme where it sees India not only as a key beneficiary but a country that can provide a major influence. It was at the behest of the Asian body that the AIFF introduced the national league, eight years ago. The suggestions it has made lately with regard to re-organising the national league with an eye on popularising the sport, are worth considering, more so with the NFL virtually becoming a competition essentially between the clubs of Goa and Bengal. Of course, the AIFF cannot be blamed for this development for the clubs concerned had done their homework well and were reaping the rewards. "You do not penalise the clubs for their good showing," observed Alberto Colaco, the AIFF Secretary but even he knows regional sentiments overtake merit at some point of time.

While the AIFF can possibly think of broad-basing the league by having the competitions spread to more corners of the country with a new format that is not detrimental to the present leading clubs, what needs attention is the issue of whether it would be able to form a national pool of players who can be divested of club duties totally during the time of the country's international campaign. Japan's success lies in such systematisation. India has a lesson to learn there if it has to safeguard the players' career, fitness level and their hunger to excel. And in this endeavour a coach like Constantine will be useful.