On with a new mission

ONE of the commonest excuses heard for the dipping image of football in India is that the popularity of cricket and tennis, fuelled by media hype, had lured away the talents, the sponsors and the watching public.

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

ONE of the commonest excuses heard for the dipping image of football in India is that the popularity of cricket and tennis, fuelled by media hype, had lured away the talents, the sponsors and the watching public. But then how flimsy this reasoning is can be judged from the fact that football does have a strong base and big public patronage even in traditionally cricket-playing countries like England, Australia, South Africa, Jamaica (West Indies), New Zealand to give a few examples. Where then lies the fault? Will there be a new dawn for the sport in the country? These are some of the questions that came up for discussion at various forums and of course without arriving at any conclusion.

Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs, Vikram Verma, lighting the traditional lamp to inaugurate the Football Conference. Others in the picture are (from left): P. R. Das Munshi, President, AIFF, Mani Lal Fernando, Vice President, AFC, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Chairman, AICS and Peter Velappan, General Secretary, AFC . — Pic. ANU PUSHKARNA-

Like a chronic patient fearing his final moment or wishing for a miracle to happen, Indian football lives on eternal hope. It is in this state of affairs that the Conference of Indian football held under the auspices of FIFA and AFC, in New Delhi in the second week of March has come as a silver lining for a sport that is recognised the world-over as the most popular. The conclusions arrived at the three-day meet, which had the blessings of both the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA, could just be the medicine for a disease that had baffled observers all along.

The Conference is an aftermath of a visit by a three-member expert committee sent by AFC in August last year. The Committee had "diagnosed" that while the "health" of football in India was not alarming, certain "reformatory" steps were needed to strengthen it and free it from the lethargy that it had been accustomed to over the years. A key area of concern as per the expert committee was the lack of uniformity in the drafting of the constitution among the states vis a vis the All India Football Federation. Correcting that apart from reorganisation of the structure, lending a professional touch in the administration and increasing the level of competition besides ensuring there were more quality matches are a few other steps that the Committee felt necessary to revive Indian football.

In fact as the key dignitary at the conference, Dato Peter Velappan, the AFC General-Secretary who sees a big future for Indian football, believed that the "time has come for the giant to wake up" and give a fresh thrust to Asian football. An engaging speaker and one who has in the past made some plain speaking on Indian football administration, is not one who will accept the reasoning that football was suffering at the expense of cricket's popularity. "In a nation of over a billion, even if half that number cries for cricket, there is still the other half who can be lured to the beautiful game of football", was his view. "Where there is a will there is a way", felt Velappan and as far as he was concerned Asia stood to gain if India rose in stature.

What had inspired him to this line of thinking was the success of the Korea-Japan 2003 World Cup held against all odds. "It was difficult to convince the FIFA bosses initially that a joint venture would be a success, until the event actually was conducted", he said with a sense of satisfaction. It was this factor which made the AFC attach importance to the development of the game in India. Nothing was impossible in its estimation. Not only that India was placed in a special zone in the "Vision Asian football" project that AFC had launched in the wake of the World Cup success. After all, as Velappan was to elaborate , India had a glorious past and in recent times had shown a vibrant youth through the run of the Under-17 and Under-20 teams, which had reached the final rounds of the Asian championship. "These young talents had shown their capability despite not getting the benefit of long term organised scientific training, proper diet advice and health checks that sports medicine offers", he said. That is promise for the future provided India had fixed targets and worked towards achieving them.

Peter Velappan (second from left), General Secretary, Asian Football Confederation, Union Minister for Sports, Vikram Verma and P. R. Das Munshi, President AIFF, intently following the conference with a few other delegates. — Pic. ANU PUSHKARNA-

In his view, India should target 2010 World Cup or at least the final round of the next Asian Cup scheduled in China. It is not impossible provided there was sound planning, efforts to remove all anomalies and there was government support. "Surely it is not the duty of the President and Secretary of the AIFF alone to work towards the goal but all round support that should start right from the district units", the AFC official underscored. It was his plea that India should look to Japan as a model. From a non-entity till early nineties, the country had made rapid progress in years thereafter to make a big impact in the 2003 World Cup. The J-league is amongst the most successful leagues in the world and it was growing stronger by the year and is patronised by some of the World's best players, thanks to the innovations it had tried and continues to research on. No longer is football any less in popularity in Japan as compared to sumo wrestling or baseball, which had for long been the most sought after sporting activity in the country.

Witnessed by the Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, Vikram Verma, who inaugurated the conference when he also announced Government's full support to the AIFF in its endeavour to prop up the sport in the country, Prof. Vijay Malhotra, the AICS Chairman, Suresh Kalmadi, IOA President, Urs Zanitti, FIFA representative, Manilal Fernando, AFC Vice President, (who represented the AFC President, Mohd. Bin Hammam, the conference was attended by an array of football personalities which included Padma Sri awardees Chuni Goswami and P.K. Banerjee apart from stalwarts like Gurudev Singh, Arun Ghosh, Syed Nayeemuddin among others. Officials from various state units, sports medicine experts and members of the media from different parts of the country were also invited for the path breaking Conference, which AIFF President P.R. Das Munshi said was the first of its kind in Asia.

If it was Dato Paul Mony Samuel, FIFA Goal Development Officer, who set the tone on the inaugural day with his presentation on the status of Indian football based on his visit as member of the expert committee, then on the final day, Velappan summed up with "Vision India, the way forward". Using video slides and throwing in examples of Indians who had excelled in various fields, in India and abroad, Velappan presented the case of Indian football with aplomb. Like the 11 men in a team, he advised India to concentrate on the eleven elements: national Association, state Associations/club management, marketing, grassroot foundation, youth development, coaches education/referees education, sports medicine, futsal, media communication and fans. The build up should be like a pyramid, he pointed out with base being the grassroot-level talent. Broaden the base, strengthen the foundation and then build the structure. This is the first step as he signed off the conference with a Chinese sage Lao Tze's saying "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".

Whether the efforts of the AFC officials struck the right chord or whether the realisation had finally dawned that change was the need and not a luxury, the remark of Das Munshi on the final day raised curiosity. By stating that "it will be a shame if we cannot translate the changes needed for Vision India. In fact we cannot head the (football) body then", the President had made a profound statement, even if subtly! The kind of actions in the coming days will provide the index to the future of Indian football.

Japan's success story

AN attraction at the Conference of Indian football was the Japan Football Association's wonder model, the J-league. Fittingly it was presented by JFA's General Secretary, Takeo Hirata, who was himself associated with the evolvement of the professional league in the country. In a country where sumo wrestling and baseball catch the imagination of young and old, launching of a fully professional league is a risky venture. That J-league succeeded and in ten years since its launch in 1993 became one of the best in the World is testimony to the meticulous planning and innovation that had gone into the effort. The hallmark of the venture was the successful conduct of the 2003 World Cup where Japan made history by moving into the round of 16. A bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympics apart from being Asian Champion much later were the two high points in Japan's soccer history but all that has changed now with the sport now evoking waves of interest across the length and breadth of the country. Not surprisingly JFA has dreams and one of immediate interest is to be amongst the top ten nations in the FIFA world ranking.

At 43 years, the Harvard-educated Hirata considers himself a `kid' in the company of veterans in the JFA. A bureaucrat who was part of the think-tank that gave shape to the J-league, Hirata fittingly is in the thick of action as General Secretary and gave an insight into what made J-league unique. The mission, according to him was to raise Japan's football standards through a professional approach, to foster a sporting culture with the underlining message of providing a healthy mind and physical growth among the people and above all to contribute to international friendship. The feature of the J-league was not only in its choosing `J' as a prefix ("Something that was easy to remember and quick to identify", he was to say) but in having two divisions to develop competitions. Sharing of revenues from stadia collections and broadcast/telecast rights besides having each of the 16 J-1 teams to decide a locality as a hometown and identify itself with the sporting activities there so as to generate community-based interest in sports, are some other highlights.

Using video clippings and slides besides statistical inputs, Hirata laid forth the success story: rise of the league's TV ratings from erstwhile 1.2 per cent to 10 per cent and if matches involved the national team then the rating rose to 60 per cent viewership, which was phenomenal. Where Japan had just two stadia in 1990, which again were not exclusively football facilities, the country was flooded with 15 by the World Cup. Then there were training facilities at the J-Village spread over 10 natural turf surfaces, one artificial pitch, five futsal pitches apart from an array of all modern equipment for a fitness regimen. A year ago the J-league committee launched an Academy and also put on board a `second career' development for retiring players. "No player needs to fear about what happens after football career", is the new refrain. That the J-league now rakes in a profit of over $100 million is healthy reflection of the strides football has made in Japan as also how marketing has ensured the prosperity of `J-league industry'.

Another unique aspect of the J-league is the player's contract which has three categories. Professional A contract are uncapped income in principle but this is limited to 25 players per club. Even there players with the first `A' contract are subject to a cap equivalent to the current Japanese income level. To a lesser level are the other two. The contracts ensure that there was a certain balance in the strengths of the teams. With some of the best known players in the World patronising the league and an assembly of top Industrial names as sponsors, J-league is on firm ground.