Nehru Cup: Early sheen that never returned and quality that got replaced by mediocrity!

A feeling of nostalgia and excitement engulf me when I turn the clock back to those initial years of the Nehru Cup football tournament – an international invitational tourney kickstarted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) thirty years back.

As a school-going kid, I vividly remember the 1982 and 1984 editions of the Nehru Cup, which were held at the Eden Gardens (during that time Eden Gardens used to be a multipurpose stadium, hosting international football tournaments as well as international cricket matches).

I can recall watching some of the matches telecast live with the Stadium packed to capacity with the Doordarshan commentators going gung-ho every time the Indian team orchestrated an attacking move.

Two-time World champions Uruguay arrived for Nehru Cup’s inaugural edition with two star world-cuppers – Enzo Francescoli and Venancio Ramos mesmerizing the Indian crowds with their deft touch and supreme ball control. Francescoli justified his reputation scoring twice during the tournament to propel Uruguay to a title win – they cosily put it across India 3-1 in the league stage as well.

The first few editions of the Nehru Cup were the best, in terms of quality of football dished out, as a galaxy of big names graced the tournament.

In fact, the Nehru Cup made the biggest noises during the 1984 edition featuring 1978 World Cup champions Argentina, which had the likes of Jorge Burruchaga and Nery Pumpido – the duo were part of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning team in Mexico two years later. Carlos Billardo – the man who coached Argentina to glory in Mexico – was also one of the main attractions of the 1984 edition.

I cherish fond memories of India’s match against Argentina – how the Blue Tigers fought resiliently and kept the formidable opponents at bay for most part before the Argentinians pulled off the match-clincher in the closing stages of the game.

Similarly, Poland fresh from its impressive third-place finish at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, had in its ranks the duo of W?odzimierz Smolarek (the man who scored a goal in their 5-1 win over Peru at the 1982 World Cup) and Andrzej Buncol (he played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups) who netted an important goal against Argentina.

The tournament was further lent the ‘star’ quotient by the presence of Hungary’s prolific forward Laszlo Kiss who turned out for club side Vasas Budapest in the 1984 edition. Kiss, who must have left a lot of Hungarian spectators blowing ‘kisses’ at him during the 1982 World Cup when he became the first substitute player to score three goals in a World Cup match, dazzled the Indian fans with his skills.

The fact that the Nehru Cup attracted global attention can be best underpinned by the fact that England’s 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore was the chief guest in the 1984 Nehru Cup final in which Poland got the better of China, which has the not-so-memorable feat of being runners-up four times and not winning the title even once.

Talking of memories, I recall the 1986 Nehru Cup where the Russia team featured as many as five world cuppers – Sergey Krakovsky, Andrey Bal, Vasiliy Rats, Vadim Yevtushenko and Igor Belanov. It was a little surprise that the Russians won that edition. Vadim Yevtushenko stole the show scoring six goals alone. The 1986 edition was also graced by Peru’s Franco Navarro – the 1982 World Cupper – who regaled the Indian spectators pumping in 2 goals.

Without a shadow of doubt, the Nehru Cup was in the pink of health – drawing huge crowds, attracting some of the world’s leading lights but the tournament steadily started to lose its sheen since the late 80s. AIFF’s biggest hassle was ensuring the participation of marquee players/teams in the subsequent editions – which massively dented the profile of the country’s only international invitational tournament.

One is not sure on which fronts the organizers could have failed in drawing the big teams/players. Or was it linked to lack of adequate sponsors or lack of government backing for the event?

I can agree that roping in sponsors is a tough proposition given India’s standing in international football (being ranked outside 150). We got to understand that sponsors would only come forward if they can derive sufficient mileage from an event and not otherwise. That probably explains why the Nehru Cup’s sponsor cupboard has been bare in recent times.

But obviously, lack of government backing cannot be an issue. AIFF had someone like Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi – a former Union Minister – at the helm of AIFF for 20 years (1988-2008). Dasmunshi wielded considerable clout and it is difficult to believe how the AIFF could not have secured government backing.

The AIFF had a new President in former Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel in 2009 after Dasmunshi suffered a massive heart attack in October 2008, leaving him confined to bed.

The Nehru Cup has in recent times always witnessed a consistent pattern of teams initially confirming to send their first teams and later showing keenness only to send their second-string teams or junior age-group teams as a bid to treat the tournament as more of an exposure trip rather than anything else. At times, the organizers have been left with no option but to include such teams.

The tournament – which became a biennial event in 1989 – gradually saw a dip in spectator interest as AIFF failed to evince football buffs’ interest with second-string teams turning up against India. The Nehru Cup slipped into a ‘coma’ – the tournament was not held during the 1998-2006 period after Iraq won the 1997 edition.

Again, one is curious to know what could have been the reasons for the organizers not to hold the tourney for a ten-year period? I can think of lack of sponsors being an impediment but nothing beyond that. ONGC came to AIFF’s rescue and played a big part in reinstatement of the Nehru Cup in 2007. The oil giant turned up as the title sponsor of the 2007 Nehru Cup – called the ONGC Nehru Cup. A new trophy was also designed after the original rolling trophy could not be recovered from Iraq for reasons unknown to us.

Former India Bob Houghton deserves a large chunk of the credit for reviving the Nehru Cup. It is said that Houghton’s cajoling was a big factor in AIFF reinstating this tourney. ONGC not just sponsored the 2007 edition but the 2009 edition as well – it also happened to be a sweet coincidence as India won the both editions much to the delight of its sponsors as well its supporters.

The revival of the Nehru Cup was a big positive for Indian football but some problems seem to be deep-rooted. The ‘shining’ stars who used to grace the Nehru Cup in the eighties continued to distance themselves from the tournament as India basked in the glory of winning the Nehru team against teams which exactly cannot be called first teams.

In recent times, the AIFF seemed to be taking a hard stance in order to restore some degree of competitiveness in the tournament. For instance, the organizers dropped Palestine from the 2012 edition after they expressed its inability to send its main team. The AIFF also cracked the whip on Thailand, which also wanted to send its under-19 team for the 2012 Nehru Cup. Even Kenya confirmed its participation and then later expressed its desire to send their under-19 team, which was rejected by AIFF. So, amid all the flak the AIFF draws at most times, they deserve a pat on their backs for taking a stand.

Of course, it is not always the case that teams are reluctant to send their first teams. Most teams face the common problem of their main players being not released by their respective clubs. If you take out some of the big club leagues of the world, most of the country’s big players ply their trade outside their home country. Football federations find it even exceedingly difficult to convince clubs to release their players, especially if it is an invitational event like the Nehru Cup.

The 2012 Nehru Cup continues to follow the similar pattern of teams taking part without its main players. Cameroon came into the tournament without two big guns – Samuel Eto and Alex Song. Same goes with Syria, who are sans some of its main players who are playing abroad in countries like Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Irrespective of whether India scores a hat-trick of Nehru Cup wins, the bottomline is: a humongous effort is needed to make this tournament a howling success. A part of the onus to raise the profile of the tournament lies with the Indian team, which has to perform well and climb up in the FIFA rankings, which will automatically enhance big teams’ readiness to play against us, in turn benefiting the profile of the Nehru Cup and ensure it becomes an annual event (like the 80s) and not a biennial one, something I earnestly desire!

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