Where are the strikers?

STAN RAYAN

Maharashtra captain Abhishek Yadav with the runner-up trophy. "All our top clubs have foreign strikers. So, how can we do well without playing regularly?" he asks.-MAHESH HARILAL

ONE was forced to suppress a guffaw the other day when Indian coach Syed Nayeemuddin said he had plans to recall I. M. Vijayan for national duty. Now 36, Vijayan is no longer the Black Panther he once was. He no longer sends the defence into a tizzy.

But Nayeem's thinking is no laughing matter. It tells a very sad story, a story about the lack of quality strikers in Indian football.

Only a few days ago, the National coach had watched the young Goan Freddy Mascrenhas fire in nine goals in three matches in the Air-India Express Santosh Trophy prelims in Kozhikode. But he was not convinced.

"Against whom? That's the big question," said Nayeem.

Freddy did not bang in a single goal in the Santosh Trophy's final phase in Kochi. And that virtually shut his case. Maharashtra's Reuben D'souza, making his Santosh Trophy debut, showed some promise with his speed, ball control and smart running. The 19-year-old seemed to find the right angles and space to shoot, as he proved against Bengal in the quarterfinal league and with his match-winner against defending champion Kerala in the semifinals. But he has just begun.

Well, the search for top-class strikers is desperately on.

With Vijayan hanging up his international boots two years ago, there's only Bhutia now. After him... who?

The question still remains, after the 60th Santosh Trophy.

John Helm, one of Europe's top football commentators who has covered seven World Cups, summed it up nicely.

We have the talent. But we need to believe in our players and pay them like the foreigners. Then, they will work harder and try to reach that level -- Syed Nayeemuddin.-MAHESH HARILAL

"I'm impressed by the strength of the Indians. And you have some good talent too. But you have to work on your technique and shooting. Your shooters are very, very erratic," the Englishman told The Sportstar.

Shocking really. A country which produced Neville D'souza, who scored a hat-trick while emerging as the joint top scorer in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics where India finished fourth, is now desperately looking for men to do the most important job in football.

What's wrong? How did we lose the art of scoring goals?

"We don't get much of a chance. All our top clubs have foreign strikers. So, how can we do well without playing regularly?" asked Indian striker Abhishek Yadav of Maharashtra.

"Often, we don't start in the first eleven and when we do, we'd often be substituting for injured or `carded' foreigners," said the 25-year-old star of Mahindra United, the Federation Cup champion.

"You can't just expect us to sit on the bench for long and then start scoring goals when we come in. You need time to settle down," said Abhishek who scored three goals in his first match in Kochi, against Services, before shattering his prospects in the tournament by injuring his knee in the next game.

But how do we solve the problem? How do we build up confidence in our strikers?

We'll have to persist with our strikers in the National League and other tournaments. Practice makes perfect -- Dereyk D'Souza.-MAHESH HARILAL

Former international Dereyk D'Souza, the great Neville's younger brother, has a solution though it may not go well with the National League clubs.

"We'll have to persist with our strikers in the National League and other tournaments. Practice makes perfect," said Dereyk, also a former Indian coach.

"Back in Mumbai, we've now decided to do away with foreigners in the local league," he revealed.

Meanwhile, National coach Nayeem introduced a financial angle. "We have the talent. But we need to believe in our players and pay them like the foreigners. Then, they will work harder and try to reach that level," he argued.

But who will buy this argument?