Why India isn't good enough

ROHIT BRIJNATH

"PHYSICS," said the speaker. Physics? we asked. What do Newton and gang have to do with football?

The place was the Oberoi Grand Hotel. The time, a decade ago. The subject, why India isn't a footballing power. And the speaker, P. K. Banerjee, once player, then coach, always raconteur.

Of course, 'physics' had nothing to do with it. With due deference to the enlightened and amusing PK, it was merely a case of mangled pronunciation.

What he meant was "physique". Or rather the lack of it, which in his opinion was one of the primary reasons why India was unable to compete on the world stage.

Just a handful and more kilometres away, in those days, at the Salt Lake Stadium, PK's theory was being vindicated, courtesy Chima Okerie.

Okerie was not a great player by any measurement, maybe not even a very good one, but in India he was a star. Undoubtedly he had a striker's instinct for goal, but his speed arrived from muscular thighs, his ability to shrug off tackles and the close marking of his diminutive peers due to his powerful body.

Some years later, in 1998, when I was researching the shift in most sports from subtlety to power, and how that leaves India at a disadvantage, I quoted George Blues, then technical director at FC Kochin, who said: "If I. M. Vijayan kicks the ball at 90mph, Ronaldo's would easily be 90mph."

Equally problematic was the nature of physical contact in football, not merely the relentless tackling but the sheer bruising quality of it. Football, week in and week out, across the world, carries with it a certain brutality, and as Banerjee once said: "There isn't a single Indian player who will be able to rise in a week's time after one of those typical (European) tackles."

Of course, it will be said that the physique argument in itself is not conclusive. Romario is not physically imposing (in height, not thigh measurement), neither was Bebeto, nor for that matter is Beckham. But they are swift, strong enough to ride tackles and resilient: Beckham, for instance, it was recently divulged, runs close to 8.8 miles a game, a phenomenal work-rate, at high speed, something no Indian player could match.

This is a problem not easily fixable, for short of using genetics to create a master race, India will always be, if not out-sized, then certainly out-run, by their European, Latin American, African and even Asian/Oriental counterparts. Baichung Bhutia, it is worth considering, for all his sublime gifts, merited only a place in England's third division (by name Bury was a second division side, but that was discounting the Premier League). Nevertheless, that Bhutia has travelled so far is itself an accomplishment.

Yet India can strive to achieve a higher standard, simply through a rigorous work ethic (though that is scarcely a national trait and it is no coincidence that a coach like Nayeemuddin, who is incessantly demanding, is not a player favourite and can't get a coaching job) and a scientific, professional physical training programme. A few laps around the field and the odd calisthenics are methods as old as Noah. To help keep his fitness intact, while his leg heals, Beckham is spending his nights on the floor sleeping in an oxygen-depleted tent.

Do Indian coaches, humility in their suitcases, go abroad and learn and then return and disperse their wisdom? Are foreign consultants, whether coach or trainer, allowed to enforce their plans unhindered when they come visiting? The answer is no, and the results are obvious. It is worth remembering that an Indian team, Banerjee included, came fourth in the 1956 Olympic Games football competition in Melbourne, a feat of such astonishment that even now, 46 years hence, it is difficult to digest. It suggests, if nothing else, that India possessed a reasonable skill and resolve, and it is hard to fathom where it has all since vanished.

The issue, of course, is that Indian soccer is unstructured and chaotic, rife with politicians preaching footballing ignorance. Much like hockey, Indian officialdom has failed to ignite a grass roots revolution. The game is not spread, neither is it organised, nor is it marketed. As a career alternative it does not exist on any parents list.

Today the game flourishes, though that itself appears an overstatement, mainly in Goa, Bengal, Kerala and Manipur. (It is pertinent, and worthy of an interesting and presumably excitable debate, that one veteran soccer observer notes that these communities are not in the forefront of Indian society and thus unable to influence bureaucratic decisions.) Even in Punjab, from where once came Inder Singh and so many others, the conveyor belt is rusted and broken.

Tournaments themselves have lost their lustre. And almost inevitably, declining quality has had some bearing on decreasing quantity. Novy Kapadia, the television commentator and author of Triumphs and Disasters: The Story of Indian Football 1888-2000 regretfully concedes that "in the late 1970s there were 125 all-India tournaments, held round the year. Now there are barely 20 tournaments left.'' Few could name them all.

Modern sport functions as an entertainment business, run as much by fellows in track suits necklaced with a whistle as by suited executives carrying calculators who know how to cut a deal. Money is the oxygen of any game's existence, and cricket at least has learnt that lesson well. Football in India has no concept of it: they have no plan, no product to market, no idea of viewership, and thus few takers. Peter Hutton, a man of supreme optimism, now vice-president, programming of Ten Sports, says, and kindly, "Football is still the sport with the greatest untapped potential in the country."

Clubs are dying because they lack necessary funds, as is the case (so it is rumoured) with FC Kochin, but the AIFF is in no position to bail anyone out.

That is why India rests as No. 123 on FIFA's most recent ranking list. Ranked above them are not just Malta and Malawi, but the Faroe Islands, whose combined population is straining to touch 50,000. We are worse than we should be and it is a disgrace.

But equally disgracefully the same men who run Indian football soldier on. During this year's World Cup, as has been the norm, no doubt another contingent of so-called 'experts' and 'observers' will troop off to Japan/South Korea. They will certainly be wiser upon their return: not necessarily about football but certainly about the bargains to be had on Tokyo's Ginza strip. Few, if any, reports will be filed. No one will ask questions. Accountability is not the word in the Indian sporting lexicon.

India does not seem to learn, neither do its players. Once upon a time the practice of importing foreign footballers made sense.

To compete with the best brings out the best in a man, is an old maxim. By playing alongside superior craftsmen, more determined and hungry men, surely Indian players would draw inspiration, be moved themselves to improve. It has not happened.

If anything the reverse has occurred. Clubs, which may be forgiven for putting the financial bottom-line ahead of national interest (it happens everywhere), see foreign players as the magical elixir for all their woes. Their business is winning, not upholding some vaguely patriotic spirit. So the Indians have had to make way, and while clubs win it does little good for the state of domestic football.

Of the 31 goals scored by Mohun Bagan en route to their recent National Football League triumph, 22 were scored by foreigners. The highest Indian on the list was Basudeb Mondal with three. Banning the foreigners itself will not solve anything, for sport is an open market, and closing the shutters will not make Mondal a better player. But clearly there is an issue inherent here that needs addressing.

Foreign coaches too are brought and celebrated and then summarily sacked. But we should know, even Bora Milutinovic, who has taken five different countries to the World Cup, and is an established weaver of miracles, would be able to do nothing with our raw material. In India, we prefer to start at the top, with the national team (though they hardly get enough exposure) when in effect all triumphs begin from the bottom, grass roots. National 'A' teams in cricket have become a necessity; in soccer, countries have Olympic teams, under-21 and under-17 World Cup teams. In India, there is no age-group national team in football worth discussing.

The terrible irony is that India has a rare passion for football (or should one say good football). When Manchester United is playing televisions are switched on. When the World Cup is on, and this summer will be no exception, daily schedules are organised keeping the match timings in mind.

In Calcutta, one year, during a Cup match, the local Doordarshan made an announcement that all unnecessary electrical appliances be switched off for the load of so many flickering televisions was so great on the grid. One gentleman I knew sold his motorcycle to buy a ticket when Pele came to town; another saved on a four-year cycle and abandoned his wife routinely to go and watch the World Cup.

Passion must be harnessed and then distilled, and then all measure of miracles present themselves. India will not be a world soccer power, not for another century. But it could, should the stars and planets be in a particularly fortuitous alignment, travel one day to the World Cup.

As Hutton, amiably says, "When you compare the quality of play in India now to China in 1994 there is no great difference - and China has risen to become a World Cup side."

India needs something to propel it forward into the future. Hope itself is not enough.