'It is a school of life'

Joseph Blatter with East Bengal captain Alvito D'Cunha at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. The FIFA president later witnessed the NFL match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.-S. PATRONOBISH

Sepp Blatter is of the view that for football to develop in India, it needs more involvement from the society. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

The delegates at FIFA's Extraordinary Congress in Los Angeles in 1999 were surprised to receive a strange gift, which was in the form of a brick, from their newly elected president, Joseph `Sepp' Blatter. It was his way of suggesting to the delegates that the international football federation's emphasis was on grass-root development.

The brick soon came to symbolise Blatter's global vision for football. The man who took over the reins of FIFA from Joao Havelange of Brazil had decided to take the sport beyond Europe and Latin America, and the brick signified the first building block of a systematic development process that Blatter planned to implement across the globe. His intention was to build a house of football and a training centre for each of FIFA's affiliates.

The FIFA conclave in Los Angeles played a seminal role in the creation of the Goal Programme, which was developed in stages with millions of Swiss francs funding each level of its progress. Blatter, assisted by one of his close aides, Mohamed bin Hammam, President of the Asian Football Confederation, monitored the progress of Goal, which now plays a crucial role in FIFA's globalisation plan.

India, the second most populated nation in the world, soon appeared on the FIFA radar. Blatter called India the "sleeping giant'', referring to its humble ranking today — No. 165 in the world — and the potential it had for the development of football. The first Goal project was soon sanctioned.

Indian football's long cherished date with the head of the world governing body was realised on the night of April 14, 2007 when Blatter's entourage arrived in Kolkata. "Thank you for receiving me with open arms. It feels so good to be with so many friends,'' the FIFA president said as he went around the city gleaning information about Indian football.

Blatter chose Kolkata as his first stop because of the city's pioneering role in popularising football in the country. "I am surprised to find that two of the three clubs I visited here are older than the world body (established in 1904) I represent,'' he said.

Blatter began his day by visiting Kolkata's three famous clubs — first Mohun Bagan, the oldest club in the country, which was established in 1889, followed by East Bengal (established in 1920) and Mohammedan Sporting (1891).

Blatter and his aide Hammam, along with Jerome Champagne, the FIFA president's representative for special affairs, and David Borges, FIFA development manager (Asia Oceania), seemed to enjoy the rituals the clubs put together in welcoming them.

The FIFA chief then visited the statue of the legendary Gostho Pal, the bare-footed Bengali who excelled against the regimental might of the British, and paid his tributes. Later, in a bigger ceremony hosted in a city hotel, he felicitated the living legends of Indian football. The event turned out to be nostalgic, bringing together the heroes of the past such as P. K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Sailen Manna, Peter Thangaraj, Subrata Bhattacharya and Bruno Coutinho among others.

Kolkata also gave the FIFA president a glimpse of its football culture — the traditional rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The National Football League match was rescheduled to enable Blatter witness the most fiercely contested derby in the country. A crowd of around 70,000 turned up for the match, which Mohun Bagan won 2-1. Though all three goals of the match were scored by the Brazilian recruits, Blatter said it was "pleasant'' to witness the game.

However, the AFC president, Hammam, was a bit harsh on Indian football. "Having seen the top three clubs of your country, I can say if things stay like this, even after 100 years India will not be able to attain world standards,'' he said.

Both Blatter and Hammam were of the view that for football to develop in India, it needs more involvement from the society. Blatter said he was convinced that there is natural enthusiasm for the sport and the country is economically "rich'' to support development. "Football is a school of life and the society should appreciate its merit as a great educational tool,'' he said.

Blatter lauded Kolkata's passion for football, but said that it was the responsibility of the leaders of the society — the industrialists, politicians and administrators — to help in the development of football.