Indian football: Where do we go from here?
Right off the bat, I must declare that I am not a keen follower of Indian football, whether international or domestic. I know most of the players that play for the national team, the general positions of clubs in the I-league and who their star players are. That’s pretty much it.
There have been times where I have been in intense debates about why I don’t watch Indian football. I could cite lack of time, or lack of coverage or a million other reasons, but the fact is that I simply don’t think the quality of Indian football is good enough. At the risk of sounding like an elitist, the European leagues have spoilt me for choice and Indian football just cannot compare. I don’t feel even a little unpatriotic when I say this, because let’s face it, we are simply not good enough.
I happened to watch large parts of the India-Myanmar AFC Cup qualifier match that we lost 1-0. The chances of qualifying for the AFC Cup now look bleak. I don’t know if India was having an off day, but I was highly disappointed watching the team play. This certainly did not look like a national team that’s on the rise. These were a bunch of school-boys running around the pitch with no clear-cut goal or plan. There was no incisiveness in the attack, no co-ordination in the defense and let’s not even start talking about positioning errors. The attackers looked tentative on the ball and the defenders were hacking at anything that was coming into the box with little to no confidence or composure. There was a single shot that hit the Myanmar post, but that too was a goalkeeping error more than anything else.
When Myanmar did score the deciding goal, it had less to do with their attacking prowess and more to do with India’s abysmal defending. There were five Indian players bunched together inside the box and they were unable to mark a single Myanmar attacker. Soe Minn Oo tapped the ball into an empty net as Subrata Pal’s save rebounded back to him, and the entire Indian defense was left ball-watching. This was not a momentary defensive lapse; this was poor and, quite frankly, amateurish defending. It wasn’t a tactical error either; this was simply poor football. Despite all the talk about India playing positive football and moving ahead, it was the same old story. We were just not good enough.
Another major problem that has been plaguing Indian football for a long time is the sheer lack of physical fitness. And it doesn’t look like the situation has changed too much. Aren’t professional footballers expected to last ninety minutes on the pitch? I understand that the domestic schedule is ridiculously jam-packed with the I-league, the Santosh trophy, the Calcutta League and God knows what other competitions, but shouldn’t all of these factors be taken into consideration when a nation fields its best XI? One of the major reasons that India lost the game was because they just didn’t have the legs to attack or defend.
At what point are we going to accept that our standards are ridiculously low and do something about it? History is witness to the fact that a team that cannot last ninety minutes can never win consistently.
Now it seems unfair to judge the team’s performance based on a single game, especially when I didn’t watch any of the earlier games. But this isn’t about a single game. The reason football is the world’s most popular game is the little moments of magic and a few flashes of brilliance that come along with it. It isn’t always about the goals. A well-constructed attack, a moment of skill that leaves a defender flabbergasted, a bullet shot that whizzes just past the post and a dozen other moments in a game are what make the game worth watching; they make it a true spectator sport. Win or lose, one must appreciate the beauty of the game. Well, I saw no beauty in this game. At no point did I feel the magic football brings along with it. And at no point was I at the edge of my seat. I wanted to enjoy the game, but I really couldn’t. And that made me feel a little sad.
Football may not be in our culture – except along the coasts and the North-East – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t enough football lovers in the country. On the contrary, the support for the game has increased manifold in the last decade and will continue to grow for a long, long time. But will we get a national team we can truly support? We may bring in foreign coaches and talk of qualifying for the bigger international tournaments, but do we really have the means to do it? It’s not like we are genetically predisposed to not be good at football; it simply means no one cares enough. We are very comfortable being minnows and don’t really want to take the next step; stepping out of the comfort zone never comes easily to Indians. And until someone shakes things up, I’m afraid we are going to be stuck as an ‘emerging nation’ for a very long time.
A common complaint in Indian football is the lack of support. Not enough fans, not enough media coverage and not enough money. And although these are fair claims, can you really expect fans who have been bred on the EPL and the La Liga to switch to a clearly inferior I-League? If Indian football wants support, it’s time to earn it. It’s time to face the bitter truth and change this small-minded mentality.
A sleeping giant is of no use to anyone, including himself. Indian football better wake up while it still has the chance. A country of a billion awaits.