Radical changes needed

HE has been in the business of football for over 45 years and continues to be just as enthusiastic as when he entered the scene.

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

HE has been in the business of football for over 45 years and continues to be just as enthusiastic as when he entered the scene. Dato Peter Velappan, the General Secretary of the Asian Football Confederation loves football and believes that Asia has much to offer in the development of this game. A persuasive speaker and one who throws in a lot of conviction in his talks, the suave dignitary's greatest satisfaction in his long career has been savouring the success of the Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup. "When the World Cup was allotted to Asia, it was Japan which was to host it. Then came South Korea's intense pressure. Both Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter, the President and Secretary of FIFA then were against the idea of a joint venture. They wanted me to keep Korea out of this. But we stuck to our decision and with great reluctance, FIFA agreed", Velappan would say now in the aftermath of the historic event. It is this inspiration that is egging him on to give Asia a new vision. A lover of Indian football and one concerned of its poor status, he believes, the time has come for "the giant to wake up". That India forms one of the cornerstones of the "Vision Asia" project is testimony to the importance AFC is according to the development of football in the country. Excerpts from an interview:

Peter Velappan... doing his bit for Indian football. — Pic. K. BHAGYA PRAKASH-

Question: Why this sudden interest in Indian football of late?

Answer: I have followed Indian football from the fifties; the past record of Indian teams, fourth place in 1956 Melbourne Olympics, gold in the '62 Asian Games, the number of youth championships and so on and then the sudden slip. My interest is only because this can be a wonderful country for football not only at the subcontinental level but even higher. Indian players in the past proved they were talented. Like the Brazilians in approach, movements, style and the high capacity to pick up. In recent times I have spent a lot of time to give Indian football a fresh start. But it never succeeded because of various reasons: indifferent leadership, poor Secretaries, alarming disunity in the football community. Hence this current poor status. After the inspiration of Korea-Japan World Cup success, we decided it was time to move forward with a clear vision. Our new President, Mohammed bin Hamman of Qatar is very active and he said "lets give Asian football a new start". In the last two decades we had done much in raising infrastructure and most countries benefited. We needed to change the mindset now. And in Indian football too, for as you see, it is a mix of history, cultural make-ups and regional differences.

The problem in Indian football is the failure to see beyond Bengal or Goan football. Doesn't it call for a radical change in attitude?

That is why this Conference outlined what should be done. Football is a golden product and it is hidden here, needing someone to polish it. AFC will assist India in this venture by training the manpower needed.

How has it been in other countries, say Japan and China? What exactly have been their experiences? What have they done that we have not?

There is no comparison. Japan today is better than even many European countries. It has such an outstanding structure and set up apart from a very forward moving mind set. Then there is the support of Industries,which have realised that football can provide lot of mileage for their products.

The problem in India is that cricket has caught the imagination of corporate houses and its mileage particularly on television, so unless football performance is consistent, industrial patronage can be bleak. Do you think there can be any change?

Everybody wants to be with a winner. As I see it, Indian football has been a loser all this twenty odd years. Football is so easy to understand, play and appreciate. In its absence the choice obviously has been cricket, tennis and maybe athletics. That's the situation. What I say is let 500 million people go for cricket. Still you have enough people left to lure into football which is the most popular sport at grassroot, village and school levels. We have now to build up the required structure. According to our studies, the Korea-Japan World Cup attracted around 8 million Indian fans from the accummulative TV audience of 30 billion. Who said football has no backers here?

In India Television has opened the eyes of Indian fans to the best of football action from Europe and they cannot settle for anything less?

Sure, that is a problem not peculiar to India alone, but Hong Kong, Vietnam and even China. When we start talking of Asian football we hear it is not attractive and all that. Right now the Asian Champion's league is on and if you see on Star TV, some tremendous goals are being scored, as good as any seen in European league. But we have to keep honing the skills and let the people say, "Ah, Asian football is now coming up". Gradually we will be winning. Similarly India has to produce winning teams. Because when you have winning teams then it becomes very easy to convince the population to support. To rope in sponsors too. This is psychologically very important.

So how do we prepare our players in this part of Asia for the tougher lessons in other parts of the globe?

We have to step up our approach to professionalism. Players should show better discipline and commitment. They should have better coaches. Professionals in Europe for instance, train morning and evening. In Malaysia for example training twice upsets the players. This mentality has to change.

We always hear experts say that Asian countries can gain more by playing European teams. Do you agree?

At some time, when professional players rise, it will benefit an Asian country more if it plays European teams. Certainly it is a better move than participating in events like SAARC tourney or SAF Games. I mean what can India gain from playing in them except be disgraced as at Dhaka when it lost to Pakistan. Now India should, say for the next five years annually, like conducting the Nehru Cup earlier, get three or four teams and play a series. This is what Japan is doing, Korea and China too. In Malaysia, the Under-20 teams of Brazil, Portugal and Korea alongwith the host nation had a combined camp before the FIFA World youth championship in the Emirates. In June, Malaysia will have New Castle,Birmingham City and Chelsea playing in the country. This is what motivates the players. We have to learn from the professionals for it is they who are winning the World Cup, not amateurs.

What AFC is focussing at is a wholesale change in Indian football. Do you think this is possible?

It is definitely not a soft solution but a hard job that we foresee. There are too many vested interests now. Everyone wants to know "What will I get?, What for my state?"Nobody thinks of India as a whole. Football is to promote unity, a school of life. If you learn to play together, you live together. In India this regional factionalism is too strong. This can be overcome, of course. After all it is only a mind set.

You sound so confident?

As I said this is the last chance we are giving to the Indian Federation. I would give them five years to improve and put Indian football on the road to progress. Our vision team will also be assisting in this endeavour. We are appointing four people especially for India. I will also insist on AIFF that they should now appoint professionals in various areas like coaches and referees education, sports medicine, youth development programme and club competitions. All you need is to identify young University graduates, pay them salaries of around two to three hundred dollars. We will train them for three months and they will come back and do the job. I mean isn't it better than spending a million dollars to send a team to London to play a couple of matches with Jamaica. Besides (Alberto) Colaco (AIFF Secretary) will breakdown if he is not given assistance!

So in five years you expect change?

Not change but get all the acts together to bring a professional approach in the various fields. If this does not happen then we can take it that India has missed the opportunity and football here will remain as it is for the next 50 years. Then we will have Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bhutan beating you. My point is when Maldives can improve (Rustam Akhramov has done wonders there), Sri Lanka can have a wonderful system then why not India. Even China is so receptive. There the Government has even agreed to sack their football Secretary. "As long as we are going to Germany 2006 World Cup, do anything", is their refrain.

What is your advice then to the custodians of Indian football?

Football starts at the amateur level. Then it progresses to semi-professional level before elevating to professional level. At the professional level it is like business. In business we look at profits, else you are in danger. Now amateurs cannot run business. So how can you dream of playing in the World Cup when you do not have a Formula I team? This is what the Federation has to ponder over.