Football fans throughout India are fuming and visibly angry at the inept performance of the Indian football team in the ongoing SAFF Cup football tournament. On Thursday India was held to a lacklustre goalless draw by lowly ranked Sri Lanka. The island nation currently has a FIFA world ranking of 205 while India’s ranking is 107.
India was expected to chalk up a comfortable victory but failed to score even a single goal. This poor show came after a string of disappointing matches on earlier occasions including a recent 1-1 draw with Bangladesh. Social media was flooded with angry and sarcastic messages from football lovers of India. Their fury compelled the coach Igor Stimac of Croatia to come out with a statement in which he said: “I hope social media won’t decide who will be India’s coach.”
After the draw with Sri Lanka, India has just two points from two matches. At the time of writing, India is in fourth spot in the SAFF tournament. The top two will play in the final and the top two right now are Nepal and Bangladesh. It has been a shockingly sad display from the country which was twice Asian Games champion. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and hosts Maldives are the participating nations. Pakistan and Bhutan are not taking part this time.
To understand what lies behind India’s inadequate game, siasat.com spoke to two football experts of the twin cities, namely Shabbir Ali and Victor Amalraj, both of whom had captained the Indian team during their playing days.
Shabbir Ali who had led India to a joint victory with Iran in the Asian Youth championship in 1974 said that he cannot blame the coach alone. The team as a whole was playing below standard. Everything has to be taken into consideration when evaluating a team’s performance, he explained.
“I am extremely upset and unhappy. We are playing far below expectations. The blame has to be shared by the coach and the players. I can understand that due to the pandemic not enough time was available for preparations. But nevertheless in such regional tournaments we enjoy a big brother status. We should be able to call the shots,” said Shabbir Ali who is a Dhyan Chand award winner for lifetime achievement in sports.
“When I was technical director of the Indian team in 1995, we won the gold in the SAF Games football championship. We got the gold after a few earlier misses. So there may be an occasional failure. In sport, nothing can be taken for granted. One failure can be excused. But to repeatedly play below expectations is unforgivable,” he said.
When asked to suggest a way forward, he said: “We must have leagues which last for a longer period so that the players are given more exposure. When I was a player, we used to play in the Kolkata league and also in outstation tournaments such as in Delhi in the DCM Cup and Durand Cup, or Bombay in the Rovers Cup, or Bangalore in the Stafford Cup, or Hyderabad in the Nizam’s Gold Cup and so on. We used to play a lot more matches back then.”
“Another thing that is needed is grassroots level development. The Government as well as the corporate sector must come forward to bring about progress from the lowest levels. Recruitments have also stopped. Earlier the railways, banks and various public sector bodies used to recruit sportsmen. That has stopped. We knew that if we played for our state, it was likely to fetch us a good job. That encouragement has stopped nowadays for the players,” Shabbir Ali said.
Victor Amalraj who captained India, Mohammedan Sporting, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, outlined a similar solution.
He said: “In our days we used to play many more matches and that too against top class opponents. As an Indian team player I have played against Sao Paulo club of Brazil and against Argentina and Uruguay. That Argentina team had almost all of those players (except Diego Maradona) who later won the 1986 FIFA World Cup. The players these days must get the same exposure.”
“India won the Asian Games twice (in 1951 and 1962) and got a bronze medal in the 1970 edition. In the SAFF tournament we have seven victories. So we are the best within this region. But now we are under pressure. However, I am sure that the AIFF will look into this matter and work out a solution to raise the standard of football in India again,” said Amalraj.
“In India due to our geographical dimensions we cannot follow the same system as followed in Europe. We must have our own system of conducting leagues in every state. More local level tournaments must be conducted for schools and colleges wherein talent can be unearthed. If consistent and systematic coaching is provided from a young age then we will once again produce players of top calibre,” concluded Amalraj.
Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.