India Football needs faith healing

Jaideep Ghosh

For a while, it was even between India and Iran at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Tuesday night. Then the match started.

The overwhelming feeling at the end of the match, the World Cup 2018 qualifier, would be one of relief. A scoreline of 0-3 was about half of what was apprehended before the match. It was supposed to be a whitewash of epic proportions, with the Iranians boasting a lot of big names, some of the biggest in Asian soccer.

So one could venture to say that the Indian plan was achieved — they had, after all, gone into the game with one plan, not to concede too many. So when you see three defenders become four, five, at times seven, you could see it would be a long night for them. That they crossed over at the end of the first half with just a 0-1 deficit was more due to the lethargy shown by the Iran forwards. Essentially, the Indian formation kept changing, with more players heading for their own penalty box rather than the rivals’. But then, that was the gameplan anyway.

As things stand, India are at the bottom of Group D of the Asian qualifiers, thanks to their losses to Oman and Iran at home and to Guam away.

The Guam match was the one that really made Indian sports enthusiasts and fans sit up. For one, they had to pore over the map to figure exactly where the island was. Then, once they had nailed it down, it was assumed that this one we would win. Not quite. India lost and people were again poring over the map. Guam? Really? Then came an insipid draw with Nepal in an international friendly and everyone settled down, back to being fatalistic about Indian football.

Zero points and a minus-five goal difference after three matches, two at home, don’t promise some sensational transition, especially since the eternal plan seems to be ‘contain’. Wonder what happened to Indian football. There was a time in the 1950s when India could have been expected to be one of the impending powerhouses of the sport, at least in Asia. But that was a fallacy. Indian football was too fractured, too self-satisfied and too uninspired to really make a mark.

There have often been a lot of complaints about how most Indian sports are not given their due. That may well be true, but when the teams around the region began to flourish, none of them were economic superpowers. So they were facing the same problems as India, but somewhere, there was a will. Another mystery about Indian football is the distressing conversion rate, from the number of players at ground level to those making a mark higher up.

There can be no doubt that India still would have more football playing youngsters than cricketers or hockey players. It doesn’t really need much — a dilapidated ball, a small strip of land and a pair of slippers or two stones to mark the goalposts — many nations have created footballing geniuses from that.

Its not like Indian football didn’t have a structure. We boast the oldest football tournament outside the British Isles. Bengal has been playing football right from when the British came and the rest of India wasn’t too far away at any stage.

So where is the problem? Surely we can at least be expected to be noticed, if not feared, in Asia at least?

Sadly, no. Too much red tape, cut length-wise, too many divisions, on regional lines and too many self-serving officials have made football in India an also-ran. Football doesn’t need that much money in the basic stages. What bigger example than any of the Latin American nations? Most noticeably Brazil. Children have emerged from shantytowns and hovels to be world beaters. In spite of remarkable similarities in the backgrounds of the players, there is an universe of difference between India and such nations.

The complaints about lack of sponsors, money, Government encouragement and the likes are now passe. There is absolutely no question that football, like most other sports, has received unprecedented encouragement.

Another thing. There is no point in complaining about what mileage cricket gets. That sport has generated its own success and consequently its own empire. Football would be well served to look into its own home.

We have all played football, with various levels of competence or the lack of it, but with unbridled joy. But that joy evaporates every time you see the National team play. Somehow it seems to be an incurable malaise. One hopes for the sake of the future generations that they don’t lose out on the beautiful game. It won’t take much to keep them smiling. But someone has to step up to keep the faith intact.