Perfect end to Friendship series

POOR Sukhvinder Singh was a harassed man on the last day of India's football tour to Pakistan at Lahore.

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

Indian captain S. Venkatesh receiving the trophy from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, after the inaugural football series ended in a draw.-AFP

POOR Sukhvinder Singh was a harassed man on the last day of India's football tour to Pakistan at Lahore. The Indians had just been thrashed 3-0 by the Pakistanis to level the three-match series 1-1 (one match was drawn). Clearly then justice had been done to the projection of a `friendship series'. Having drawn the first match in Quetta and taken a 1-0 lead at Peshawar, the setback at Lahore must have pained the tourists a great deal. `A perfect ending,' the protagonists of the friendship theory would have said but did India play for that or was Pakistan suddenly transformed into an all conquering unit to bring about that end was what left Coach `Sukhi' as he is popularly known, on the defensive. In fact reports say he even had to dodge the question of whether the Indians tanked the match! The fact remains the Indians were thoroughly outplayed in the final match and, if anything the contest brought to fore more questions than answers.

On a serious note, there was little that the Indians would have gained from the tour. On the contrary the experience has only exposed the team, perhaps even had a morale set back on several of the newcomers that the side boasted of. It was not a full-fledged Indian side but a mix of a few seniors with more of Under-23 players. Right from the beginning this much was clear: Indian administrators could not have been serious with the proposal. Otherwise like cricket earlier on a similar `furthering peace' movement, the best set of players should have made the trip. Football may pale out in comparison to cricket in popularity but the truth is that even if Pakistan is way behind India in FIFA ranking, 135 to the host's 175, Indian domination in the sport in the sub-continent has thinned much over the years. That India does not hold both the SAF Games and SAAF titles should be proof enough of where the country's football stocks are even in this small pocket in Asia.

It is a different matter that Sukhvinder was able to dwell, as a matter of fact, on the Indian shortcomings when talking to the media there, but he could not have been more correct when he expressed concern later of the lack of good strikers in the current Indian football setting. Sukhi knows that India has the potential to beat Pakistan but the results have to come on the field; somebody has to be doing the work efficiently in the front to make the midfield and defence worthwhile. That has to be the main worry for India now. All the three matches showed that the Indian midfield provided a touch of class, thanks to the presence of `India's footballer of the year' S. Venkatesh, incidentally the captain. It was he who masterminded the goalward approach at most times but except Sunil Chetri (first game) and Abdul Hakim (second) none could measure up to this crafty midfielder's scheme of things.

Muhammed Essa, the player of the series, vying for the ball with India's Clifford Miranda in the Lahore match.-AFP

We are in the post-I. M. Vijayan era, perhaps even Bhaichung Bhutia. A lack of an able replacement, that Sukhi finds real, is something that AIFF has to view seriously. And it is here on a broader canvas that the deleterious effect of a `foreigner' ruling the roost in club football needs to be viewed. Votaries of foreign talent overlook the fact that when crucial positions in a club team are filled in not by Indian talent, the lopsided progress in building a national team starts right there. Today if names like Sunil Chetri, Sukhwinder Singh or Surajit Bose do not muster confidence then who is to be blamed but the system. If Pakistan could expose the Indians then where was the surprise when Japan and Oman swept the Indians away in the pre-World Cup campaign.

Looking into the immediate future, like the SAF Games or SAAF championship and even the Doha Asian Games, the effort should have begun on forming a pool of Under-23 players. Perhaps the India-Pakistan series, from all accounts well received considering the huge gathering for the matches, should have been an Under-23 fixture for that would have provided a truer index of the standing of the sport in the two countries, without undermining the broader aspect like `furthering friendship and peace'. Perhaps this idea can be floated when Pakistan plans its return trip to India.

As is said always at the end of any tour, the biggest gain has been the experience, and quite a number of Indian players were making their debut at the international level. But one player who will perhaps consider it a turning point in his career must be the Pakistan striker and the `player of the series' Muhammed Essa, who received an invitation to join East Bengal club. You gain some you lose some, it is said. In India's case it is a moot point if it has gained anything.

Tour summary: First match: Quetta: Ayub Stadium: attendance 20,000; result: India 1 (Sunil Chettri) drew with Pakistan 1 (Muhammed Essa); Second match: Peshawar: Qayyum Stadium; attendance 15,000; result: India 1 (M.A. Abdul Hakim) bt Pakistan 0; Third match: Lahore: Punjab Football Stadium; attendance: 17,000; result: Pakistan 3 (Muhammed Essa, Tanveer Ahmed, Arif Mehmood) bt India 0.