Tale of woe continues for Indian football

IF comparison is a must, then India's performance in the World Cup qualifier this time remained the same as in the previous edition.

IF comparison is a must, then India's performance in the World Cup qualifier this time remained the same as in the previous edition. India finished third in its Group of four. But the difference was that on the last occasion India gave a close run to UAE, the then Group winner. This time, however, in the cluster with the Asian champion, Japan, Oman and Singapore, it earned a drubbing.

Getting thrashed by Japan may not be shocking given the stature of the Asian powerhouse, but losing badly to Oman in Kochi was a rude shock to followers and officials alike. It is a different matter that India managed to beat Singapore once and in its last engagement, in Muscat, held Oman goalless. By then, though, the proceedings had become academic, as Japan had already cemented its passage.

From India's point of view, and more importantly for coach Stephen Constantine, the reverse could not have come at a more inopportune moment when the AIFF is chalking a new path, having effected constitutional changes to fall in line with FIFA`s regulations.

There is also a realisation on the need for professionalism in every area of operation. Constantine himself seemed to have given a fillip to the game with a few successes in the previous year, including the LG Cup triumph and the second-place finish in the inaugural Afro-Asian Games.

Suddenly the cupboard had gone empty and Constantine's role has attracted adverse assessment. AIFF officials are non-committal on the future of Constantine, whose contract expires in mid-2005. It must be said that given the resources at his disposal the Englishman did a fair job.

It is never easy in a country where clubs' interests tie down players. And to expect the national coach to have a free hand is difficult to comprehend. In fact this problem exists even in Japan where Zico had to be content for most part with available players than the stars who were away playing for clubs in Europe.

But Japan has the depth of talent to plug the weak areas and Zico had the expertise to keep the boat afloat. Perhaps Constantine would not have been as disappointed as he was, if given the fiat to tour the country and pick his own men from football pockets including the North East, Kerala, Karnataka and even Andhra Pradesh as well rather than be at the mercy of the clubs. Keeping the players together and training them over a period of time form the essence of his methodology, in building a strong team.

Be that as it may, the preliminary phase of the qualifiers witnessed competition in eight groups of four teams each. The group winner moved into the next round where the eight teams are placed in two groups for another round of league. The two top teams from each group qualify for the World Cup in Germany, 2006, while the two third placed teams play off to meet the winner of CONCACAF zone for the one additional berth.

The surprise was the exit of China, which many observers perceive as having risen to the level of Japan and Korea. Bora Milutinovic triggered the dream for China in the last World Cup when the team made its debut, but his successor Dutchman Arie Haan had the misfortune of seeing the team's exit even in victory.

China was done in by `one' goal after it tied on points with Kuwait. As per FIFA rules when two teams are tied on points the next norm is to check the `number of goals scored' and Kuwait had 15 to China's 14, enough for the former to make it to the finals.

Expectedly, Haan quit but Asian football observers are keeping their fingers crossed and this reverse would not undermine `Vision China', a project that AFC believes would turn this most populous nation a force to reckon with in World football in the seasons to come.

China's exit meant only Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia survived from the previous World Cup. Others to join them for the crucial final round are Iran, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, DPR Korea and Bahrain.

Uzbekistan, the 1994 Asian Games champion, and Bahrain (which had a good run in the Asian Cup recently), have never qualified for the World Cup Finals thus far.

The display of DPR Korea is a good sign while the rise of Iran, powered by that mercurial Ali Daei, who completed 100 international goals, is another indicator that Asia is set to alter the power equations. But these are early days yet for such a presumption.