Indian football and its ways

KNOWN for his cautious approach and shrewd tactics, it must have disturbed national football coach Sukhvinder Singh that the Indian team disappointed him in Pakistan (series ended on level terms) and let him down in Fiji thereafter (India lost all its matches there). But little would he have imagined that the `friendlies' would ultimately lead to unfriendly times. The All-India Football Federation is looking for a new national coach and a committee has been formed to identify one. However, in keeping with the AIFF's manner of doing things, conflicting versions were heard intially. While the Technical Committee chairman insisted that Sukhvinder will not be changed but will only be asked to explain what went wrong with the team, from another part of the country the AIFF President was clear that a new list of coaches would have to be drawn up and if some one was better qualified than Sukhvinder then he would take over the reins!

Indian football has seen how coaches from abroad have been shown the door after being welcomed with open arms. Stephen Constantine was the last in this list. Constantine had the credit of transforming the national team, within a mere two months of his taking over, to a winning combination (the LG Cup success in Vietnam, 2002). The Afro-Asian Games silver medal in Hyderabad the next year was another feather in his cap. But before long, after the bashing India received from Japan in the World Cup qualifiers, the swords were out and the man was gone. So `Sukhi' can take comfort from the fact that these are routine happenings with the national body.

What will hurt him still is that when he was asked to manage the national team it was with the intention of building the side for the Doha Asian Games. It is a different matter whether India will participate there for when the Government comes up with a yardstick for participation, football often becomes a victim. Clearly then Sukhi, with all his experience, (he was national coach earlier and presided over the national team's SAFF Cup success in Goa in 1999) should not have been judged on the basis of those two tours. Besides, if the AIFF had been true to its word, Sukhi should have been provided a talent pool of say Under-23 players on whom he could have worked over a period.

Considering that `rest' is non-existent for Indian footballers, their condition after a long season can well be imagined. Even the best of professionals in Europe or Latin America are clear on the number of matches they will play and the rest they need for recouping, but can that be said of their Indian counterparts? Talent has to be nurtured and not treated like a murder accused sent to the gallows. A high level of performance cannot be sustained, players break down frequently and ultimately it is Indian football that suffers.

It is amusing to hear that the AIFF is thinking of a foreigner for the Technical Director's role. And he is supposed to work along with the national coach, who will be an Indian! Uzbekistan's celebrated coach Rustam Akhramov had been tried as a Technical Director, but that did not bring about any tangible results in Indian standards. Worse, enough animosity developed and he left the country in gloom. What is not understandable is why the AIFF should continue to harp on the foreign coach theme, particularly for the senior national team, in a setting when the interests of the national side run tangentially with those of the clubs.

Instead, the AIFF should be looking for an overseas expert for planning and building teams of say Under-18 or Under-19 talents with the target of utilising them for continental competitions over a period of time. Each year there could be additions and deletions to this national pool. This way, players who perform and get noticed by leading clubs need not leave a vacuum behind. By doing this the AIFF can ensure two things: attract good talent to the game and second, have a ready bunch of players for national duty.

With regard to the structural and planning growth that the AFC has been advising and on its participatory initiative (the pilot projects in Delhi and Manipur, for instance), it was expected that the AIFF would take a cue. From the latest episode, it would appear, when it comes to Indian football change is but an exception rather than the order of the day. Indian football is still to get over the fact that it has slipped in the FIFA rankings. What is more, it does not have a leading presence even in the sub-continent, having lost out in the race for the title, both at the SAF Games and the SAFF Cup. The truth is Indian football has to start afresh. When is it going to begin?