It's Not 'Offside' Anymore
“I mean, it is not fun to criticize or abuse on the internet. Come to the stadium. Do it to our faces. Scream at us, shout at us, abuse us. Who knows, one day it might change you guys or you might start a change for us".
It was required. It is a shame that the captain had to plead for people to come into the stadiums, requesting them to support and root for the Men in Blue playing football for their country. But it did manage to ignite a fire. A fire that spread in no time, but for the good.
The Mumbai Football Arena was sold out. The Men in Blue stormed out and defeated Kenya 3-0 thus taking a step further towards ensuring a spot in the finals of the Intercontinental Cup. The stadium went berserk. India roared. Sunil Chettri had his hands folded in gratitude. He could sense something special brewing.
India lost their next game to New Zealand. The first post that I saw on social media after the defeat was 'you may win or lose but we are always standing by you'. It worked. The euphoria wasn't a one time rage but an inspiration ushering a journey to the podium.
Come the night of the finals. The stadium that was three-quarters empty when the first fixture of the tournament was played did not have one seat vacant. Sunil Chhetri rammed the ball into the back of the net twice to defeat Kenya 2-0. India lifted silverware.
If there is a perfect script then it had to be this. Chhetri became the joint second highest active international goal scorer only behind Cristiano Ronaldo. The man led by example.
India are now ranked 97th in the world. They were standing at 171 in 2014. Believe it, the ball is indeed rolling.
However, not everything is hunky-dory. There is still an enormous storm to combat.
I recently heard a journalist asking Sunil a question. "Do you think football can compete with cricket in India?" That was it. Irony struck big time.
A single question threw up so many answers as to why other sports in India and particularly football are struggling to rise.
How do we expect to become world beaters in football if our sole aim behind the game growing is for it to give competition to a completely different sport?
It's a shame. We have got it all wrong if that is what the objective is. No, we need not compete with cricket. Please respect the sport that has already brought great laurels for the nation. Let cricket be.
If we need to compete against something then it has to be against the top football teams around the globe. Let us try and compete against the much more advanced infrastructure that successful football nations have managed to provide to its players. Learn from the processes the top football teams adhere to. We need to invest in the sport for it to grow. We do not have to stop investing in another sport.
For football to rise you need not bring cricket down. They coexist.
You do not need to pull down the one at the top to make space for the other. There is enough room for winners up there. Get inspired by the success of each other. They all wear the same blue. They all represent Team India.
With no intention of sounding like a complete Sunil Chhetri fanboy (even though I am guilty as charged) let me phrase another one of his statements.
"In other countries which do well in sports, the identification of talent and nurturing of talent is the most important aspect. In our country sadly, we wait for somebody to become a hero, worship the hero, talk about his whole journey only when he has become the hero."
It makes a lot of sense.
So please let us focus on identifying talent, supporting and guiding it. Provide the adequate infrastructure and nutrition. Give them what they need to compete with the best in the business.
As a collective sporting nation let us strive to be world champions every time we walk out to compete in the arena. Let's venture to taste victory on the Clay Court, in the Boxing ring, the Badminton court, at the Shooting range, the Football pitch and on the Cricket ground.
Mahesh Bhupathi, Saina Nehwal, Viswanathan Anand, Dipika Pallikal, Sardar Singh Mary Kom, Sunil Chhetri and Virat Kohli. They can all win.
Yes, you win some and you lose some, but the belief and faith should remain untouched. You need not always have to score five out of five penalties to win. Sometimes 3 could do it too.
Thank you Team India! The ball now is in the opponents' net but firmly in your court.
Let no one tell you that you are the Underdogs. No, you are not!