Indian football has not come out of mediocrity

The truth now is that Indian football, once a force in Asia, struggles to hold its won even in the SAF region.

The euphoria of the LG Cup win at Ho Chi Minh City could not last long. Recently, the Indian team lost its status as the holder of the SAFF Cup, in Dhaka. In fact, India slipped to the third spot losing to the ultimate winner Bangladesh in the semi-final. Four years ago Bangladesh had meted out a similar treatment to India in the SAF Games in Kathmandu.

Indian football has seen more of defeats than victories in recent years. At Dhaka, it was a tournament involving only eight low ranked countries and the status of the championship, even in Asia, is somewhere at the bottom.

Considering that India was ranked high among the lot, at 127, makes this loss poignant. For, the truth now is that Indian football, once a force in Asia, struggles to hold its won even in the SAF region.

In any popular sport, a setback like that in Dhaka, would have triggered an avalanche of criticism. Efforts would be on to crucify a scape-goat. That there was only a muted reaction for the team's loss in Dhaka only reflects the disinterest for soccer in the country.

That it was left to star-player, Bhaichung Bhutia, who had to skip the tournament because of injuries, to raise a possible debate is significant for two reasons. First, it had come from the man who can easily be considered the galvanising force in contemporary Indian football, and secondly it is good to hear a voice from the players' side.

As the first Indian player to gain experience in English football (he had played for the FA second division team Bury FC), Bhutia has the credentials to air his views. He has learnt the tough lessons of the sport in the best environment.

There are no two opinions about Bhutia's proficiency. As a TV anchor during the World Cup, he expressed his ideas clearly and forthrightly.

And on the field, his ebullience was in full play when India made waves last year, in the LG Cup, as well as in the friendlies against Jamaica and Uzbekistan, not to forget the Busan Asian Games.

There was promise then. And many thought that the country had probably turned the corner. His absence in Dhaka was a definite handicap because he could have provided the thrust upfront, which the team lacked badly.

Bhutia rose to defend his colleagues by blaming the clubs for India's poor show. He claimed that the players were a tired lot. That is debatable.

After all, it is the club that provides the bread and butter for a footballer. Bhutia himself is worth a fortune, playing for East Bengal. It is natural then that the clubs make the best use of their talent. To expect them to be charitable and release their leading stars in advance for National duty is asking too much from them.

Even the leading football nations have been unable to find an answer to this player-club problem — even at the time of an important fixture like the World Cup.

But then that has not come in the way of say a Brazil or Germany playing to their optimum level of efficiency. As the star-player Ronaldo, who guided Brazil to the World Cup win, admitted that the need was to follow a certain fitness regimen in the face of unavoidable club commitments.

Perhaps, the All India Football Federation could have scheduled the NFL in such a way that the players had a good two to three weeks break before the SAFF Cup. Or better still pick a team with stress on youth. After all, India had done well in the Asian Under-20 championship by qualifying for the final round.

This was something that had made even the Asian body take note of with keen interest and certainly a few of the players from this squad could have been given a look-in.

It would have been a lot easier for the English coach Stephen Constantine to get his plan of aggressive football working with young and fresh players. Instead, for Constantine to have suggested after the Dhaka fiasco that India should have given the tournament a go-by and played some friendlies, shows his lack of understanding of India's position vis a vis not only in this sub-continental championship but in the SAF region as such.

It is a pity that India is unable to come out of mediocrity. The theme here is to make the best of available talent, whereas the world over, the game has undergone a major transformation the stress being on a blend of physical ability and individual brilliance. In India, footballers still struggle to find the meaning of fitness.