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Indian football has only itself to blame for its sorry state, writes Raju Mukherji

The 21st FIFA World Cup recently concluded—as always, India was nowhere in the picture. This is a disappointment and an embarrassment to millions of football lovers. But the reasons have never been truthfully answered. In India, we have hidden ourselves behind screens of misrepresentations and hypocrisy. It’s high time Indians know the truth about our football scenario.

Today, India is ranked below 100 other soccer-playing nations of the world. Even at the Asian level, we are among the bottom rankers. If nations like Japan, South Korea and Iran can qualify for the World Cup, why can’t we? If countries like Iceland, Cameroon and Costa Rica, among others, can become world-cuppers, why can’t we make it?

Ironically, soccer was introduced to India much earlier than it was established in Brazil by Britain. The sport was introduced in India by the Britons in the 1850s whereas they laid the foundation of football in Brazil much later in the 1880s. The game was played in India by the British military men stationed here. The native Indians were quick to grasp the fundamentals and organised clubs to compete with the British teams based in India.

But so attuned were we to being within the ‘comfort zone’ of our country that our players, coaches and officials had little idea of how football was evolving around the world. The World Cup began in 1930. Soccer at the Olympics had started still earlier, in 1900. Initially, it was an all-European affair at the Olympics but from the 1924 Olympics, soccer began to attract nations from around the world. All over the globe, players had progressed from ‘barefoot football’ to wearing boots with studs.

In India, we still continued to play in bare feet! Even now, some people take great pride to say that Indian players had real courage because they played in bare feet against the boot-studded Brits! Such misplaced bravado cost Indian soccer very dear in the long run. In fact, when India first took part in Olympic soccer in 1948, our boys played in bare feet, though it was not allowed by the existing rules. But at the time, India had just gained independence and the Olympics were held at London, so the British authorities, in an act of magnanimity, allowed the Indian players to play without boots on. On a bone-dry ground, the Indians put up an outstanding display but finally went down 1-2 against France, after missing two penalties!

The next Olympic Games were held in Helsinki in 1952. Our much-vaunted barefoot players were hamstrung by the slushy conditions and were thrashed by Yugoslavia 1-10. Only then did realisation dawn in India that one cannot play proper soccer without properly studded boots.

Between the two Olympics, in 1950 India received an invitation from Brazil to take part in the World Cup. We failed to accept the invitation—there were no qualifying rounds in those days—and since then, India has never been a part of the World Cup. Recently, an idea is being floated that India could not go to distant South America because of the high cost of travel. This is not true at all. At the time, just after Independence, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an ardent lover of sports, was very keen to see India participating in tourneys around the world. Money was made available for various sports meets including hockey, cricket and other sports. In fact, football, too, had received government patronage and private sponsorship to travel to London for the 1948 Olympics.

Money was certainly not the major issue. The outrageous demand of our football authorities was to be allowed to play barefoot! FIFA was adamant that they would not allow anybody to twist their rules: either you play with boots on or don’t play at all. Even for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, an invitation was extended to India. True to form, our football authorities returned the entry form after the expiry date was over and, consequently, India was not allowed to take part.

In the past five decades, India took part in pre-World Cup tournaments and was invariably defeated by big margins, even by Asian sides. Since 1970, Indian football has not been able to make a mark, even at the low Asian level. Indeed, for the past five decades, India’s football stature has stagnated at rock bottom. But we still have not bothered to analyse our weaknesses, preferring to take refuge under lame excuses. We have blamed lack of infrastructure, lack of sponsorship money and lack of opportunities. Are nations like Nigeria, Senegal and Honduras superior to us in these respects?

Our problem is that we have remained dishonest to ourselves and continuously hoodwinked our football enthusiasts. Today, India is not even a force in Asian soccer. As it is, Asian soccer is no big deal in the world of football. For the World Cup, among the best 32 nations only three teams from Asia are considered for qualification for the sake of universal participation. Even among these weak Asian countries, India has no standing. At present, we have come down to bullying our next-door neighbours in the South Asian Federation (SAF) games. Quite a comedown it is. In 1951 and again in 1962, we were Asian champions and used to beat Japan and South Korea—they are regular worldcuppers now. Even in 1970, we were the bronze medal winners at the Asian Games. After that, what has Indian football got to show? Nothing.

In the 1980s, the Nehru Cup was introduced. Top-quality foreign teams came to play. But what did India gain? We have the I-League and the ISL for a number of years now. But how far has Indian football progressed?

The truth is that Indian football has to develop from within. No amount of money or transfusion of overseas talent will be of any help. African and South American countries, including top football nations like Brazil and Argentina, can offer very little to their young trainee players by way of facilities and funds. Yet how do they manage to produce outstanding talent? Even players from economically advanced nations dance to their samba tunes. Why does this happen?

Surprisingly, no one in India seems to be bothered. The golden age of Indian soccer was between 1956 and 1962. Instead of eulogising those truly great players, the trend at the moment is to heap praise on players who achieved nothing worthwhile during their heydays, after 1970. This kind of hypocrisy will not help soccer to thrive in India.

Memories of men like Neville D’Souza, Peter Thangaraj, Arun Ghosh, Jarnail Singh, Tulsidas Balaram, Simon Sundaraj, Pradip Banerjee, Prosanto Sinha, Yousuf Khan and Chuni Goswami, among others, are fast fading. This was the nucleus that helped India exhibit fabulous soccer at Melbourne, Rome and Jakarta between 1956 and 1962.

Neville D’Souza had scored four goals, including a hat-trick against Australia (now a World Cup side), at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. True to Indian sports tradition, the outstanding performer was excluded from the team in the following Olympics at Rome in 1960! To this date, no other Indian has been able to replicate the glorious deed of the man from Goa. Yet he was victimised for no fault of his. That’s another story for next month.

For the past 50 years, the Indian soccer world is living in a cocoon of self-hypnosis.
Unless we are honest to ourselves and to football, no improvement will ever take place. First, we need to accept the fact that Indian football has been a total flop even at the low Asian level since that bronze medal in the 1970 Asiad.

Yes, the Indian football brigade can take heart that there are about 80 nations still behind India’s football rank. What needs to be analysed is why we are behind Japan and Korea whom we used to defeat? Why are we behind teams from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Honduras, Morocco, Columbia and others who can give little by way of assistance to their own players?

Economically, these countries are so backward that their players seek football employment abroad. Because they are brilliant, they get lucrative jobs as soccer professionals. On the contrary, our best players are so mediocre that they are turned back. This sad truth we must learn to face is that we are just not good enough. No point hiding behind excuses, pretexts and verbiage. Our soccer heroes returned from the previous Asian Games after being thrashed by huge margins in the group matches they played in.

We, the football fans of India, must get honest answers from the people concerned with Indian football. The most important questions are: Why are we not good enough? What is being done to rectify matters? Where is the huge amount of sponsorship money going? Why are football administrators not being held accountable? Why don’t we have football nurseries? Do we have proper coaches? Is the game being properly promoted among our youngsters? Till these questions are truthfully answered, Indian football will remain in the quagmire of its own making.

Kolkata-based Mukherji is a former cricket player, coach, selector, talent scout, match referee and writer

Photo: iStock
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
September 2018