IT'S that time of year: "Why isn't India in France '98?" The good news is, our boys played "well enough" in the qualifying matches to "jump" to 115 on the FIFA rankings, up 14 places from USA '94. The bad news is, even if three World Cups are held simultaneously, we won't figure in any of them. "India will never qualify for the World Cup for another 2,000 years. Take it from me," says Dereyk de Souza, former international and coach of the national team, 1992-94. "But I hope for the sake of the country that I am wrong."
We could never make the grade when the Asia-Oceania group, in which India falls, could send two teams to complete the final lineup of 24. South Korea and Saudi Arabia bagged these places in '94. South Korea and the United Arab Emirates in '90, South Korea and Iraq in '86, Kuwait and New Zealand in '82. And we could never make it to France although the format of this tournament was changed to allow 32 finalists, including four from Asia-Oceania. These places were bagged by South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran.
There were 170 entries for this World Cup from FIFA's 193 member-countries; 36 of the Asian Football Confederation's 41 members—India included—entered the fray for the four berths. The 36 were divided into six groups of four teams each; and four groups of three teams each. India was in group 10.
At the first round of the Asian Zonal qualifying tournament in Qatar in September 1997, there was a glimmer of hope that we would get into the second round after we beat the Philippines 2-0 and drew 1-1 with Sri Lanka. But in one of our more dismal displays, we were thrashed 0-6 by the hosts. We stood third in Group 10 and thus couldn't contest in the second round.
End of story. And the beginning of the same old story. India hasn't broken into the Cup preliminaries since 1950. While the fortunes of upstarts like the Gulf countries and even Japan are in the ascendant, India, a force to reckon with in the '60s, is struggling. Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all scored over the Indian team in recent years. "Our standards plunged in the '80s," says S.S. Narayan, goalkeeper at the '56 and '60 Olympics. "The Gulf countries steamed ahead as they pumped in oil money to import foreign coaches. Others like Bangladesh and Nepal managed more foreign tours, gaining exposure."
Besides the usual reasons—'inferior' Asian physiques, absence of killer instinct, confidence, etc—experts attribute the continuing fall in Indian football standards to:
"Our schools have to accord priority to football. Otherwise, we will not be able to improve our performance," says Alberto Colaco, secretary of the Goa Football Association. Funnily, without all this hindsight, we qualified for the '50 World Cup: the first and only time we did so. India topped Group 10 (Asia) comprising Burma and the Philippines. We would have made the trip to Brazil but were not allowed entry because of our "barefoot play".
And then, like in hockey, technology boomed and we were left far behind. End of story. And the beginning of the same old one.
With Shameem Akthar and Anant Gaundalkar