I went to watch Pune FC take on Indian Arrows at home on the 5th of February, 2011. Indian Arrows is essentially our Under-21 team, though most of the boys are around 18 – 19 years old, which means they are still young by U-21 standards. We have been reading and hearing about this bunch of boys for quite some time; ever since they qualified for the AFC U-16 Championship, beating the likes of the mighty Saudi Arabia (3-0) drawing against Iraq (2-2). This happened in 2007, and the boys attracted a lot of attention in Indian football circles for these performances. The AIFF gave its full support and financial backing to this group, providing them with as good training facilities as possible in India, and taking them to exposure trips abroad. Most notably, having them play against the U-16 sides of Manchester United (3-3) and Everton (1-2) after they completed a couple of months long trip to the US. Following a not so impressive campaign at the AFC U-16 finals, these boys continued to play together, featuring in the AFC U-19 qualifiers, the SAF games, and now in the I-League as Indian Arrows. Some of these boys also made it to the Indian U-23 team in the recently concluded Asian Games.
Though my intention is not to right a match report of the Pune vs. Arrows game, I will make a passing mention nevertheless. The first half was awful, unwatchable. The second half was better, mainly because we got to see three goals, all of which were from Arrows’ defensive lapses. I don’t think the match deserves anything more to write about, so I want to make my point from here.
Overall, I was quite disappointed to see these boys, after waiting to catch them in action for the last three and a half years. Not because they lost 3-0. The result is not my concern at all, and it shouldn’t be, because the idea is to develop these players. Not to go on a hunt for three points every time they play. And this is exactly where the disappointment comes in.
The players played as a compact unit while defending and battling out in the midfield. They maintained a high line, seemed to understand how to keep their shape as a team and remain close to each other. They also chased down every ball, both in attack and in defense. But (and its a big but), when they had the ball in their feet, they looked clueless, much like the Indian senior team did in the recently concluded Asia Cup. They seemed to have no idea how to string a move together. How to keep possession and move the ball around across the length and breadth of the pitch, creating open spaces in the opponent’s defense to exploit. What was even more disappointing to see was the fact that it was not down to technical deficiencies of the players. They just did not make an attempt to pass the ball among themselves. As soon as they got the ball, they looked up and kicked it long and high, aiming Pune’s back four, hoping their midfielders will catch a rebound and create an opening from somewhere.
And this is where I think we should have our reservations about British coaches. Desmond Bulpin comes to India with a reputation, but also comes with the baggage of the British style of kick and run football. The AIFF needs to ask one and all if this style of football suits us best. But before that, they would do well to know that the English model for football development is looked down upon by the rest of the world. And for good reasons. Look at the lack of quality in English national teams over the last two decades or so relative to the Germans, Dutch, Spanish and French. Not to mention the Latin American giants, Brazil and Argentina. This is simply because these nations emphasize on developing a player’s and a team’s technical abilities and competencies whereas in England the focus is more on physical and tactical aspects while clinging on to the kick and run model.
All over England, there is a raging debate about the efficacy of their own style, which gets refueled after every world cup failure. Experts continue to debate if the English style of play is producing players who can technically compete with other Europeans and Latin Americans at the senior level and bring any glory to the country in international football. After South Africa, it was Joe Cole, who brought up this topic after the much fancied (though I don’t know on what basis) English team was mauled by an inexperienced but classy Germany in the pre-quarters. Cole questioned why they don’t teach football in England the way it is taught all over the world, i.e. focusing on vision, intelligence, ball manipulation in tight areas, combination passing & dribbling, etc. as opposed to grafting and grinding on the pitch.
Perhaps the most significant view in favor of the above came from one of its greatest exponents in modern football, Johan Cruyff. In a Futbol Mundial episode, he once famously remarked that a team which is technically superior to its opponent, will always enjoy a competitive advantage in a football match. Cruyff’s generation of total football was built on extraordinary technical abilities with and off the ball that allowed them to dominate possession and breakdown a defense from consistent pressure. Many other nations have subsequently tried to adopt that style with varying degrees of success, and with their own modifications. However, it is Spain, and more specifically, modern day Barcelona, that have internalised this style with great success over the last three decades. That success continues to manifest itself in the form of today’s Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, etc. Holland too have continuously produced generations after generations of teams which were exceptionally gifted technically, which would make them stand out from the rest of the pack in every world and euro championships since Cruyff, creating admiration and awe in minds of football watchers. Their footballing philosophy and coaching system have created such players and teams for them rather than the sheer talent of players. True, they had exceptionally gifted players in every generation (Van Basten, Bergkamp, Overmars, Robben, Van Persie, etc.) but their contribution has been secondary in the overall scheme of things.
Over in Asia, the likes of Japan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia have ensured they adopt these practices as far as possible in their own youth system. Being devoid of any colonial influence, it was easier for them to choose to learn from the Brazilians (Saudi Arabia) and France’s Clairefontaine (Japan). Thus, teams like Japan and Korea are technically as good as any mid-tier European nation today.
I do not expect the Indian Arrows to transform themselves to Barcelona or Ajax’s style of slick passing overnight. Neither did I expect to see a Messi or a Iniesta on the pitch. However, that is the path I expected them to take in their development process, if the idea is to be competitive in international football when they grow up.
I doubt whether the mandarins at AIFF are even aware of these issues regarding youth development. For years, they have drawn the line on their responsibilities at appointing a foreign coach, who, in most cases had been an inexperienced and ordinary professional. There is a technical committee in the AIFF whose brief is to look into these aspects (coaches education, coaching and playing styles, etc.), but for most part, that committee is either non-functional in these areas or is simply disinterested beyond recommending the appointment of a foreign coach. And in the bargain, the gap in technical abilities between India and say Japan or Korea continues to increase, as was so evident in the AFC Asian Cup.
Ironically, this Indian Arrows team is being prepared to make a serious bid for qualification at the 2018 and 2022 world cups. The AIFF has given this team a lot in terms of financial assistance, training facilities, exposure trips, a foreign coach, a dedicated support staff and a commitment to keep them together for the next 3-4 years at least. The players are fit, fast and full of running, as you would expect from a bunch of 18 – 19 year olds. But, most of the credit for that has to go the physical trainers rather than Desmond Bulpin. They play as a compact unit, are fearless in both defense and attack and chase down every ball to the last minute, positive attributes of British football for which Des Bulpin definitely deserves credit. But, what about football beyond these aspects? What about football with the football itself?
Bob Houghton and Colin Toal have been crying hoarse over the need for tall and well built players ever since they set foot in India. But, I didn’t find any player who is physically imposing enough to be compared to a European counterpart. In fact in the eleven that played against Pune, only the two centerbacks were 6 feet tall while the rest were of average Indian height. In terms of individual talent and brilliance, the young pit-bull, Malsawmfela impressed, as did Lalrindika, who’s looks very comfortable on the ball. However, apart from them, there was no great individual talent on display, and even when you include those two, you still don’t get anyone close to IM Vijayan, Baichung Bhutia, Carlton Chapman or Alvito D’Cunha.
This brings me to the question: we are providing a lot for these boys and they are the best in the country in their age group. They have proved at the tender age of 14-15 years that they are as good as the Saudis and Iraqis, if not better. We are teaching them a lot, but are we teaching them the right things? In the last 3-4 years, they have been under two British coaches in Colin Toal and Des Bulpin. However, with the progress they have made so far, and more importantly, the direction in which they have progressed, will they be able to reduce the gap in technical abilities that we face against the Japanese, Koreans and middle-eastern nations on the pitch? Will they take us seriously close to our dream of qualifying for a world cup? Though one game is clearly not enough to seek answers to these questions, my modest knowledge and experience of football leaves me far from convinced. And for purely footballing reasons. The answers to these questions most probably lie in looking beyond a British coach. In looking for a Dutch, German, French, Brazilian or an Eastern European youth coach. They also lie in the wise heads of Indian football debating and deciding the most suitable and relevant style of football that is accepted and mastered globally. Rather than simply putting our faith and money on British coaches.