Indian Football: For heavens sake stop blaming it on cricket!

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Recently I read an article titled ‘ Why doesn’t Indian football move ahead?’  and was surprised to read that the development of football has been overshadowed by the revenue pulling cricket system in India.

All I can say to all who very passionately write about the sorry state of football in India is, stop pointing fingers at other well-to-do sports in India, instead, learn from them and that’s how football will move ahead in India.

Cricket is enjoying its current status in India popularity and status wise simply because India has won the World Cup in 1983. Now, you may wonder what I am getting at? For the successful growth of any sport in any country depends on the success of the nation’s performance at the highest level in that particular sport.

In the 1950′s India was doing really well in football. We reached the Bronze medal play-off at the Olympics and we were invited to play World cup football (during those years there were no qualifiers).  This was the highest point in Indian football. But what did we do? We decided not to participate because the European press criticised us for playing bare feet football and during that year FIFA had made it mandatory for all teams to wear  footwear and play the tournament. Apparently, some official from West Bengal was offended by the press and we decided to turn down the invitation….and a chance to take baby steps for the success of football in India.

I would like to point out that India’s national sport apparently is hockey. Why is that so? It’s because of India’s brilliant medal winning performances in Olympics and World Cups  during the yesteryears.

So, the point I am trying to establish is that over the years sports have developed and priorities have changed and fan bases have shifted dramatically. India’s major success possibly the biggest successes in the sporting field are the 1983 World Cup and the most recently the T20 World cup wins.

Cricket has been there at the right time in the right place and delivered results that have made it the game in India. Mind you, BCCI was not born rich but they have worked their way up to acquire the  status they enjoy, the money that is involved, the telecast it has created and the revenues that it generates. It’s all come the hard way and a sustained growth over the years.

It’s very easy for us to whine and moan about the football in our country, is any one doing anything about it? No, why would anyone do anything ? The AIFF themselves can’t salvage the game in India. Year after year out there are articles about projects / visions projected to take India to the World Cup. In fact, I have been one of those fools who believed it will happen one day but every year we have the same excuses and a new vision and programme. This is a bloody joke!!! Who is the AIFF trying to fool?

AIFF should learn from other sports governing bodies like ATP/WTA and their successful Mini Tennis program and work on the similar model to build successful football structure. Another thing AIFF should do is throw out incompetent administrators who run the show. Recruit people with the right skill sets with experience in management and sound knowledge of the game.  Even better have a hybrid model of politicians and footballers to run AIFF jointly with each party playing to its strengths.

We barely make it past the pre-qualifiers after so many years of FIFA membership, its funny we don’t have youth development schemes, alliances in place for training, infrastructure, management, we don’t even have registered scouts for god’s sake! We don’t have transparency in management nor do we have the attitude to professionalize the game.

Many years ago when the FIFA-Goal project was launched in India, I had written to AIFF asking for details on how they plan to spend the funding we get from FIFA, but they didn’t respond to me. That’s the reality of  the state of affairs in AIFF: even people at the top level management are not interested in taking the sport forward.  AIFF should look at what other underdeveloped and developing nations are doing with the Goal projects investments – look at the Paraguayan Football Federations success story in building a national training centre.

Recently Sunil Chetri was in the UK for trials with Coventry City FC and that was welcoming news after Bhutia’s stint with Bury. Unfortunately, Sunil’s dreams were cut short and he did not make it. I feel sorry for hard working players who come all the way to the UK and don’t get what they want and who is to blame – no one but the AIFF.

People talk about how smaller countries are doing better than India in FIFA rankings and qualifying for major events. The answer to that is very simple – the players from the so-called small countries happen to play in European leagues which are enriched not only with fast paced games but enhanced technical skills and all the requirements to be a good competitive player. But Indian players don’t play abroad. Look at the successes of  Iran.

The marquee players of the team have played in Europe in Germany and England. They take back the learnings and implement them within national teams and make a mark. Now, compare India’s iconic players Jo Paul Ancheri, Sunil Chetri, Mahesh Gawli etc. barring Baichung Bhutia who played at Bury (Division 1 outfit in England) – none of them have played abroad. How on earth can we get experience on the pitch? No disrespect to the I-League, in fact, the steady progression of I-League is a refreshing change. This doesn’t mean the AIFF should take credit, sit on their asses and bask in the fake glory.

It’s very easy for us to talk about the history of football clubs and boast about the world’s second oldest football tournament when we are no good at all from the root.  It’s high time we tackle the problem from the roots and eradicate the problems and relay a new foundation.  That’s how football in India will move forward!!!