Saturday, September 22, 2012
The challenge for India
India are at their lowest ever ranking. FIFA puts 168 nations above the planet's second-most populous country. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has targeted a place at the 2022 World Cup. Nine years from now, when qualification is over, one of those facts is going to be repeated with incredulity.
It seems that 2022 is the target for quite a few nations that usually miss out but in this case it is premature. For the 2014 World Cup, the national team was not one of the 20 in Asia to make the third round of qualification. That is not to say India will not improve but then so will many of their 31 continental counterparts that are ranked above.
Four automatic qualification spots mean there is a lot of ground to make up. It will take more than a few years. Before India can even think about the World Cup, they need to make the I-League a truly national competition, invest more in facilities, infrastructure and youth football, see more players get decent international experience and actually qualify for the Asian Cup - something not done since 1984 (the 2011 appearance came courtesy of winning the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament for Asia's lower-ranked nations). It won't be easy.
India actually made it to the World Cup back in 1950, though only because Burma, Indonesia and Philippines withdrew from qualification. The Bhangra Boys never set foot on Brazilian grass after being told they would have to wear boots in order to do so - at least that is the generally accepted version. Some Indian journalists say that it was because of the fact that the tournament was not seen as a big deal in the country and, with the travel involved and disputes over team selection, the AIFF was not that interested. Whatever the reason, India did not play.
That was the last the world heard of Indian football for quite some time but there are moves afoot to change all that - both from within and outside.
FIFA has obvious reasons for wanting India to improve and has promised to invest in the country. If China and India qualify in 2018 then their combined population would be greater than all of the 32 that participated in South Africa. General Secretary Jerome Valcke said earlier this month: "You are 1.2 billion people and it's impossible that 1.2 billion people are just playing cricket. There is definite space for football."
He's right. There are an estimated 100 million fans in the country, though most will give the name of an English or Spanish team if asked who they support. There are, however, pockets of passion for the local game in places such as Goa and Mumbai. And this wouldn't be an article about Indian football if it didn't mention the fact that the Kolkata Derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, two of the oldest teams in the world, attracts 100,000 fans.
This is reflected in the composition of the I-League, the professional tournament set up in 2007."Three big cities - Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai - each have four clubs in the I-League," the I-League's CEO, Sunando Dhar, said earlier this month. "That's 12 out of a total of 14 clubs in the top flight, which doesn't help give a 'national' feel to the league. The north, south and centre of the country are not represented at all at the moment, and the promotion system leaves little chance for clubs from these regions to improve and reach the top tier."
Ahead of this season, the AIFF toyed with the idea of a zonal league with teams from the East (Kolkata) and the West (Goa and Mumbai) playing each other and then entering into a play-off championship season. It didn't happen - fortunately so, as that would not cater for a team like United Sikkim, who play their home games in the dramatic Himalayan backdrop of Gangtok in an area where there is excitement about the prospect of professional football. The team could do well - it has the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia in attack and the stadium is 2,000 metres above sea level. They add some romance to the league but there is a bigger need for a Delhi club. Newly promoted team ONGC are based in Mumbai but plan to play some games in the capital. With much of the national media based in Delhi, the I-League needs a permanent representative.
If the passion from Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai could be spread out across the whole country, or at least to Delhi and a few other of the big cities, India would soon become a serious player, though the problem of football facilities and infrastructure would still need to be tackled. Not only do clubs not own their own stadiums - though this is not uncommon in Asia - but many of them do not have floodlights, which is a problem given Indian daytime temperatures. Work is being done to rectify this but it takes time.
Regional academies are currently being set up around the country and run by respected Australian coach Scott O'Donnell. These are obviously a step in the right direction but, again, take time. India's bid to host the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, if successful, would give youth football in the country a necessary boost and would ensure that the government became involved in making sure that multiple stadiums and cities met with FIFA requirements.
For players just starting out now, who will be approaching their prime in 2022, the quickest way to get the best coaching, training and facilities is to head overseas; however, that's not easy and sometimes not even quick. Indian footballers have to be careful as European clubs often seem to value their nationality more than their ability, their passport more than their passing. The country's star player, Sunil Chhetri, had trials with Coventry City and Rangers that proved to be unsuccessful, as did a spell in the MLS with Kansas City Wizards. Now he is playing for Sporting Clube de Portugal's B team - one that was, according to reports, looking for Indian investors even before the ink on the contracts dried.
Even if international experience is welcome, that doesn't mean all opportunities should be taken. National team goalkeeper Subrata Pal recently had a trial with Leipzig in the German fourth division. A move to Bayern Munich may be asking too much; a fourth-tier team is asking way too little.
In the absence of players going overseas, sometimes foreign imports can help and we are not talking about the Indian Premier League - this six-week, seven-franchise tournament featuring the likes of Hernan Crespo and Robbie Fowler made headlines earlier this year but the start has been postponed a number of times and it is left to the less-hyped I-League. As well as five foreign coaches in the league, there have been some interesting additions to squads. The very well-travelled Rohan Ricketts will be the second Arsenal player - John Devine was the first - to play in India. There is even talk of Mikael Silvestre making it three. Former Costa Rica international Carlos Hernandez, the 2009-10 A-League player of the year, is the kind of signing that Indian clubs should be making. Again, it is a step-by-step process.
India is heading in the right direction but qualifying for Qatar 2022 would be a massive shock. Just making it to the 2019 or 2023 Asian Cup through a traditional qualification route would be progress enough.