If you have been following the AFC Cup for clubs this year, you would not have been exactly pleased with how the Indians have been faring. Salgaocar Sports Club and East Bengal were the two clubs to qualify for the premier tournament in Asia, but both the clubs have fallen woefully short of expectations. The clubs find themselves in a horrible position with only two games remaining and only pride left to play for.
Salgoacar have managed only one point from their four games while East Bengal have fared worse, failing to rescue a point or worse, even score a goal against more prestigious West Asian opponents. The horrible performance does throw up some serious questions about the quality of Indian football, but is it time for us to panic and look at changes that would make the teams look better on the field and on your telly rather than their quality actually improving?
Salgoacar coach, Karim Bencherifa raised this point recently urging the powers-that-be to look at the possibility of clubbing Indian teams with East Asian opponents, as they are no match for the physical play or the financial muscle the West Asian clubs boast of. The former Mohun Bagan coach had said: “It just does not make sense for us to be paired with strong clubs from the West. We all know that these clubs are both extremely powerful, both in terms of physique and financial muscle and it becomes difficult to match them.”
Bencherifa brings up a valid point here, but the move could also prove detrimental for the clubs. Clubs from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand make up the East Asian section (The AFC divides teams into groups based on whether the clubs are in the East or West Asian circle. Currently, there are 20 clubs from West Asia making up five groups, while 12 from East Asia make up the remaining three groups) and pairing the likes of Salgoacar and East Bengal with them would give the clubs a much better chance at making the knockout rounds, but do we really need or deserve an easy way out?
“India will continue to struggle against clubs from the West and Middle-East,” he had said. “For the growth of Indian football, a mechanism must be put in place where Indian clubs are placed in the East group. Indian clubs should be competing with clubs from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and, at times, even Thailand which has some strong clubs”
44 year old, Bencherifa’s point about struggling to match the financial prowess and physical play of the wealthy West Asians may be true but a glance at the history of Indian clubs at the AFC suggests otherwise. Since 2008, Indians have always seen one team from their country go past the league stages – Dempo 2008(semi-finals), 2009(Round of 16) and 2011(Round of 16) and recently Churchill Brothers in 2010(Round of 16). Indians may not have been spectacularly successful at the tournament but there is nothing to indicate that the Indians were ‘embarrassed‘ as quoted by Bencherifa.
Excluding this year’s debacle by Salgoacar and East Bengal, since 2008 Indian clubs have fared decently, with 12 wins and nine draws from a total of 48 matches. Not flattering results, but for a country that’s supposedly struggling to match their West Asian counterparts in terms of money or play that is a rich haul. And it gives everyone hope that there is a win around the corner, points to be taken and possible qualification to look forward to.
If the board does decide to go by the Salgoacar coach’s suggestion then we’d see the likes of Dempo, Salgoacar and East Bengal play against more-or-less similar opponents before being duly dispatched back home, barring a stunning upset, by their West Asian counterparts in the later stages. The embarrassment would only be put off for a later date if Bencherifa’s route is taken, but the exposure to playing top teams in Asia is considerably reduced. As an Indian football aficionado, I’m sure that’s not what we’d bargain for.
Perhaps, Bencherifa’s suggestion stems from the fact that he has been unable to crack the code at the big stage for his clubs. His Mohun Bagan team too lost all six games in 2009 and now Salgoacar have only managed to better them by one point.
The current system sees us play a minimum of six games against top-drawer oppositions and even if the gulf in class is clearly conspicuous, it gives the team ample number of opportunities to learn and implement simple things that make the larger clubs click. Looking at the larger picture, it could only mean a step forward for clubs in India.
A group with lesser able teams from East Asia would definitely put Indian clubs in better light. We’d probably end top of the table with a massive goal difference to boost of, have two teams in the knockout stages every year, have players constantly feature in the top goal-scorers and assist list, etc. But would all this really mean the state of football is progressing? Maybe, it is; maybe very slowly. But does it compare to what the clubs, managers and players might learn and realize what it takes to beat top teams when they play them consistently? I’ll let you figure that out.
This piece is not the final word and I do not mean Bencherifa doesn’t mean well for Indian football. He’s a successful coach and is surely entitled to his opinion.
As am I, and thus this piece.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this as well…
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