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Vert few of us would know that 64 years ago, in 1950, India had a chance to participate in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Well, it was by default: all the teams India was supposed to play in the qualifying rounds had dropped out, so there we were, being invited to the World Cup. Strangely enough, India gave up the opportunity. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) cited reasons such as lack of funds and equipment. The organisation may also have thought playing in the Olympics was much more important and prestigious than the World Cup: after all, it was only the fourth one. There was another small factor: Indian players played barefoot, while FIFA had banned barefoot play in 1948. Indian football’s greatest international moment came a few years later when the team came fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Most of the players were still playing barefoot. In fact, from the time of Independence till the early 1960s, India was recognised as a footballing power, at least in Asia. We won the gold in the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games, bagged the silver in 1954, and regularly won or came runner-up in other Asian tournaments.
And then came the decline.
Ever since the FIFA rankings were started in 1993, the highest spot that India has managed to reach is 94 in February 1996. It fell to a lowly 169 in September 2012, and is currently ranked 147 (May 2014), tied with Singapore, and just above Puerto Rico and Liechtenstein. This is certainly not a happy state of affairs.
I grew up in the early 1970s in Calcutta, listening to stories about the exploits of the legendary Goshtho Pal and Sailen Manna and Chuni Goswami and P.K. Banerjee and Peter Thangaraj, and watching (rather, hearing on the radio) my team Mohun Bagan being thrashed for five straight years by arch-rivals East Bengal in every match they played. Mohun Bagan could do no right, and East Bengal could do no wrong.
When Indians saw World Cup on TV for the first time in 1978, they realised that the game as played here was at a far lower level.
It was almost as a reaction to that, that when my father’s job took him to Bombay in the mid-1970s, and we moved to that western metropolis, I stopped following Calcutta football for a while. Also, Bombay was cricket city.
Around this time began the era of imported players. Two Iranian footballers arrived in Calcutta, Majid Baksar and Jamshed, to great anticipation and, for a few years, fulfilled their promise. For one thing, they were much better built than the Bengalis (and most other Indian players of the time), and could run faster and kick harder. For the first time, perhaps, Indians realised that football is also often about brute strength and physical ability, and not just dribbling and passing.
Majid and Jamshed were followed a few years later by the Nigerian hunk Chima Okorie, who would end up playing in Calcutta for more than a decade. The sight of this large, dark-skinned man bearing down towards your penalty box at great speed would surely have struck terror in the hearts of defenders fed on fish and rice. Chima soon became the highest paid player in the Calcutta league and perhaps all of India.
Simultaneously, Indians were exposed to live World up football on television. The first World Cup I saw on TV was the 1978 one. Doordarshan showed a recorded version of the final a few days after the event. Argentina won, powered by Mario Kempes and Leopoldo Luque. We sat glued to our black-and-white screens--no blue-and-white for Argentina, no orange for the Netherlands, everything just hues of grey--though we knew the result, and even exactly when the goals would be scored. And we all saw the game being played at a much higher level. We were sitting in anther continent in another hemisphere, watching the match and it still gave you goosepimples.The speed, the energy, the sheer ferocity of the contest was like nothing we had ever seen. And Indians realized that we had been, for many years, watching a very diluted version of a great game. We had been duped.
In 1983, the Tata Group brought in the Brazilian team Sao Paulo for a series of matches with an India XI. Even before we had made ourselves comfortable on the concrete benches of the giant Salt Lake Stadium in Calcutta, India had conceded a goal. We finally lost 4-0 or 5-0, I don’t remember the exact margin now, but suffice it to say that it was a complete rout. The defence crumbled, the Indian players could hardly ever make it into the Sao Paulo half, and Bhaskar Ganguly, India’s finest goalkeeper—and perhaps one of the finest ever in Indian football history—didn’t have a chance.
A couple of years later came the German team Bochum. This time there was none of the artistry that we saw in the Sao Paulo game. The Germans meant business and destroyed the Indian XI with long passes, powerful volleys and a calm military precision that was scary. India’s best stopper back Sudeep Chatterjee took a volley on his kneecap, from a distance of four feet. The kneecap shattered, and Chatterjee was out of commission for two years.
It all built up over the 1980s. Quite simply, having seen how top-class football is played, Indian fans began to realise that we had been watching a class of football that was much less athletic, much less aesthetic, much less smart. Our men could barely last 90 minutes on the field. Our bodies couldn’t take that sort of pace and aggression for that long. Our best forwards were touch artists, dribbling past defenders and flicking passes to teammates, but when faced with the real McCoys, all this didn’t count for much. Even if you got past one defender, there would be another who would seem to teleport from somewhere and intercept your pass, and with a mighty kick, send the ball back three-quarters of the field.
The popularity of the game dropped, but strangely enough, corporate sponsorship also began to appear. If cricket was too expensive a game to get your brand into, why not football? But how to get the fans back into the stadia? The option that most leading Indian clubs opted for was to get foreign players in.
In the 2000s, it was not unusual to see Mohun Bagan fielding a team that contained as many as five non-Indian players. If the idea was also that playing alongside these footballers would improve the skills and physiques of the Indians, that does not seem to have happened. Except for stray cases like Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, we do not seem to have been able to produce any footballer who could get beyond a second division team in a European league.
The proposed Indian Super League may prove to be the boost football in India needs. It could find and promote local talent.
Indian football clubs are also hardly epitomes of professionalism. There is much factionalism, nepotism, much backroom politics, and officials are often there as a power trip and not for the love of the game. Player transfers every year are bitterly fought cloak-and-dagger games, with no transparency, and often no clear strategy. Few Indian coaches have world-class training, and in a world where athletics has become more and more science- and technology-driven—the right diets, the right physical regimen, intense computer analyses of players and moves and team strengths and weaknesses, India lags far, far behind. We don’t have a proper system of spotting talent, or a progressive structure where young players from the junior sides are mentored, like a David Beckham or a Wayne Rooney was, with an eye to the future. And when a player like Bhutia does burst on to the scene, there is no institutional support that systematically works on him to make him a better, fitter, smarter player. He is more or less left to his own devices.
A Krishanu Dey, a Vijayan, a Bhutia could have perhaps made it somewhere internationally if our officials were doing what they had been elected to do. Also, only a few superstars get paid large sums of money. Others struggle to rise above their lower-middle-class demographics, and often realise that the struggle takes too long and may not even be worth it. Why not settle for a public sector bank job?
A team’s standing in the world of sports is always relative. The fact is that India has more or less remained stuck in time, while the rest of the world has moved on. One ray of hope is the proposed Indian Super League, which is supposed to kick off in September. It has big money riding on it and big-name corporate sponsors. These teams will have international coaches, strategists and players who have played multiple Word Cups (though the names that have been mentioned in the media are all past their prime). However, we’ve seen how much young Indian talent something like the Indian Premier League in cricket can discover and unleash. Could the Indian Super League do the same for football?
There’s no harm in hoping. Maybe in a dozen years from now....
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist. A version of this appears in print