Taking steps backward!

Players of Churchill Brothers celebrate with the Federation Cup-Pics: H VIBHU

India should get serious about its football if it wants to make it big. Unfortunately, the Federation Cup proved that the attitude of the officials has to change if Indian football hopes to make any headway in the international scene, writes Stan Rayan.

For a few years now, the All India Football Federation’s strict club-licensing regulations have been a big worry for I-League and Second Division League clubs.

Some of them, like Air India and ONGC, which were pushed out of the I-League after last season, and Indian Bank and State Bank of Travancore earlier, do not figure in the country’s premier league as they were unable to comply with these conditions. A few clubs have wound up too.

Now, there is a feeling among clubs that while the federation had been strict in dealing with them, it has been very casual in handing out major championships to various State associations and in dealing with the sport’s biggest stars, the players.

The 35th Federation Cup, held in Kochi and Manjeri in Kerala, is a classic example. And if early reports coming out from the Santosh Trophy’s South Zone championship in Chennai are any indication, there are many more too.

The Federation Cup brought together the country’s best and biggest clubs to Kerala. But all of them were horrified with the training grounds offered to them. Goa’s Churchill Brothers, the I-League champion, which went on to lift the Federation Cup for the first time after overcoming many odds, did not even enter the hard practice ground allotted to it and rushed to the Nehru Stadium, the main venue in Kochi. All the other clubs did likewise.

Since they were not allowed to train on the championship ground, they were forced to train in the small space around it which did not exactly serve the purpose for teams which were looking to try out new strategies after a poor performance the previous day.

“You invited us here for two weeks, so you must also take care of the facilities,” said the frustrated Dutchman Mike Snoei, the chief coach of Pune FC. The team, which was third in the I-League standings before the Federation Cup, finished last in its four-team group in Kochi after two losses and a draw. “I spoke to the AIFF technical director (Robert) Baan. He was surprised that we have no training pitches.”

Snoei said the AIFF should have had a look at the facilities before allotting venues for major championships.

Balwant Singh, who played a key role in Churchill's victory, should now expect an India call-up.-

For a sport which desperately longs to go forward, clearly the Federation Cup pushed it a few steps backward. Wonder what the Asian and world bodies, the AFC and FIFA, would have said had they looked at the training pitches offered to the country’s best clubs in a premier championship. Would the AIFF have passed the FIFA and AFC regulations for organising major championships?

And this in a country which has been allotted the 2017 Under-17 World Cup! India’s chief coach Wim Koevermans was also very disappointed with the poor training pitches. “Between the matches here, the boys have to train on little pieces of grass with no lines and the portable goal posts are without nets… so unprofessional,” said the Dutchman during the Federation Cup.

“Everybody is talking about improvement, everybody is asking me this question, ‘when do we go to the World Cup?’”

“Yeah, c’mon, you can go to the World Cup in a plane, as a spectator. But if you want to take it seriously, you have to take your own professional football seriously. We have to provide facilities for players to improve themselves. I really think that is serious stuff and I don’t think the people think that it is serious.

“Football is a serious business. It’s the biggest sport in the world. And we think we don’t have to do that. I find it very disappointing.” There was a small note of warning too.

“We’ve got to play the under-17 World Cup… we have three years’ time but this is something we have to look at seriously. The FIFA mentions top quality facilities and we should provide it. The money is there, people can do it but I don’t see it and that’s disappointing.”

The Federation Cup brought Churchill Brothers’ fighting spirit to the fore. Struggling at the bottom of the I-League coming into the tournament, Churchill came back strongly and won the title in style with a 3-1 verdict over Sporting Clube de Goa in the championship’s first all-Goa final.

Churchill was an unsettled side in the I-League, its foreigners did not fit in and many came and went back.

India's Chief Coach Wim Koevermans was also very disappointed with the poor training pitches.-

And when the club landed in Kochi, it had just two foreigners — Trinidad and Tobago’s 2006 World Cup player Anthony Wolfe and Egyptian midfielder Abdel Hamel Shabana — though four were allowed.

But despite the huge handicap, Mariano Dias’ men raised their level magnificently with every game. In the final, the side jolted Sporting Clube, which was second in the I-League table, after shocking Mohun Bagan with two early goals in the semifinal.

Striker Balwant Singh, who was the second Indian in the I-League goal-scorers’ list with six goals behind Indian captain Sunil Chettri, played a big role in Churchill’s victory along with Wolfe and Shabana and should now expect an India call-up.

THE SCORES

Final: Churchill Brothers 3 (Balwant Singh 21, Alesh Shivdas Sawant 47, Abdel Hamid Shabana 64) bt Sporting Clube de Goa 1 (Victorino Fernandes 67).

Semifinals: Churchill Brothers 2 (Balwant Singh 4, Anthony Wolfe 14-pen) bt Mohun Bagan 1 (Okolie Odafa 32); Sporting Clube de Goa 3 (Boima Jerry Karpeh 30, Arturo Garcia 83-pen & 105) bt Dempo SC, Goa 2 (Ozbey Tolgay 73, Haroon Fakhruddin Amiri 87) after extra-time.