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THE RISE AND FALL OF FOOTBALL IN INDIA

Today, India’s top footballer is considered to be good enough to play lower division soccer in England. Today, India is ranked below 150 in the world. Today, even at the Asian level, India is among the bottom-rankers. If nations like Nigeria and Costa Rica, among others, can become world-cuppers, why can we not make it?

Ironically, soccer was introduced to India much earlier than it was established in Brazil by Britain. The sport was first introduced in India by the Britons in the 1850s, whereas they laid the foundation of football in Brazil much later in the 1880s. The game was played in India by the military men stationed in this country. The artillery and cavalry regiments around the country were well-represented.

The Indians liked the sport well enough to start playing on their own. In Calcutta, at the time the capital of British India, the game took root earlier than at the other centres. By the 1880s, football clubs like Town Club (1884), Kumartuli Institute (1885), Aryan Club (1886) and Mohun Bagan Athletic Club (1889) had started to function.

These clubs were based in the northern part of the city, which was regarded as the ‘native section’. But they did come towards the heart of Calcutta, at the Maidan, to pit their strength and skills against British military sides and club teams like Calcutta Football Club, Dalhousie Club and Rangers Club.

Almost overnight, as it were, football sprouted deep roots in the psyche of the local population. Apart from the city-based clubs, other football teams appeared in the suburbs, especially in the neighbouring districts of Howrah and Hooghly. Although they were no match for the brawn of the military men, the Indian players concentrated more on the skills and made desperate efforts to get the better of their opposition. Beating the Brits at their own game became a focal point for those who were itching to play a vital role in the struggle for India’s political freedom.

Here, a very significant point ought to be noticed. In Mumbai (then Bombay), the Parsis wanted to play cricket against British expatriates for the purpose of developing contacts for their business interests. While in Calcutta, the locals were keen to defeat the Brits on the soccer field in order to flex their political muscles.

Ironically, whereas the Parsis of Mumbai defeated the Brits in cricket as early as the 1890s, Calcutta’s Bengalis had to wait till 1911 for the sweet taste of victory over their white-skinned rivals. At the Gymkhana grounds in Mumbai and Pune (then Poona), Mehellasha Pavri’s men regularly had the upperhand against the ruling British elite in cricket. So much so that even as early as 1885, and then again in 1887, the Parsis formed their own community team and went to England to play and evaluate themselves against the best of opposition. They kept their ears and eyes open and learnt the ethos, the technicalities and the intricacies of the game of cricket. Ultimately they returned to India and gave the distinct impression that they had learnt their lessons well. Subsequently, when India played Test matches, both official and unofficial from the 1920s, the Parsis were among the dominant force.

The soccer scene in India was steeped in a negative mould. Bengalis never felt the need to go beyond the shores to pit their skills against overseas oppositions. The football clubs and the players were satisfied to stay within the ‘comfort zone’ of their country, more specifically Bengal. The IFA shield tournament, played in Calcutta, became the be all and end all of India’s football horizon.

One unfortunate issue of being restricted within the comfort zone was that our players and officials had little idea of how football was evolving around the world. The World Cup had begun in 1930. At the Olympics, the game had started earlier, in 1900. Initially, at the Olympics, it was an all-European affair, but from 1924 Olympic soccer began to attract nations from around the world. The world over, players had progressed from ‘barefoot football’ to wearing boots with studs on them.

In India — primarily Bengal because this is where soccer thrived — we had little clue about the footballing world. Nor were we bothered about the latest trends in international soccer. We continued to play bare-foot! Actually, even now, some people take great pride in saying that those Indian players had real courage because they played bare foot against boot-studded Brits. Such misplaced bravado has cost Indian soccer dear in the long run.

In fact, when India first took part in Olympic soccer in 1948, our boys actually played bare-foot. This was not allowed in the existing rules. But at the time, India had just gained independence and the Olympic Games were held in London. So the authorities, in an act of magnanimity, allowed the Indian players to play without boots. On a bone-dry ground, the Indians put up an outstanding display but finally went down 1-2 against France, after missing two penalties.

In the following Olympic Games at Helsinki in 1952, our much-vaunted bare-foot players made a mess of the slushy conditions. They were thrashed by Yugoslavia. Only after that year did India learn that one cannot play football without proper boots.

In between the two Olympics, in 1950, India received an invitation from Brazil to take part in the World Cup. India failed to accept the invitation (those days there were no qualifying rounds) and since then has never been a part of the tournament. Recently, an idea is being floated that India could not go to distant South America because of the high cost of travel. This is not true at all.

At the time, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an ardent lover of sports, was very keen to see India participate in sports tourneys around the world. Money was made available for various sports meets, including hockey, cricket and other games. Football, too, received government patronage and private sponsorship. Money was certainly not the major issue. The primary demand of our football authorities was that their players be allowed to play bare-foot. Fifa was adamant that nobody will be allowed to twist the rules: India was told to either play with boots on or not to play at all.

Even for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, an invitation was extended to India. True to form, our football authorities returned the entry form after the date of submission. Consequently, India was not allowed to participate in the tournament. The lackadaisical approach of the football administrators continues even today.

In the last four decades, India has taken part in pre-World Cup tournaments and have been defeated by big margins by Asian sides. Since the 1970s, India has not been able to leave a mark even in Asia. During this time, India’s stature in the game has touched rock-bottom. Yet, we have not bothered to analyse our weaknesses. We have tried to take refuge under various lame excuses. We have blamed the lack of infrastructure, sponsorship and opportunities for the debacle. Are Nigeria and Honduras superior to us in these respects? No, they are not. Our problem is that we have remained dishonest to ourselves. We have hoodwinked India’s football enthusiasts. Our hypocrisy is such that we still give our highest national awards to people who are actually non-entities in international football.

India is not even a force in Asian soccer any longer. As it is, Asian soccer is not taken seriously in the world of football. For the World Cup, three teams from Asia are considered for qualification just for the sake of universal participation. These Asian teams are even grossly inferior to the teams from Europe, South America and Africa that have failed to qualify for the tournament.This year, South Korea, Japan and Iran cut a sorry figure in Brazil. None of these teams managed to qualify from their respective groups.

Even among these weak Asian countries, India has no standing. We have descended to bullying our next-door neighbours in the SAF Games. India were the Asian champions in 1951 and, again, in 1962. We beat Japan and South Korea (nations that now play in the World Cup regularly). Even in 1970, we won the bronze medal in the Asian Games. After that, Indian football has got nothing to show for itself.

The Nehru Cup was introduced in the 1980s. Top-notch foreign teams came to play in the tournament. But what did Indian gain? The I-League — the nation’s premier league — has been running for quite a number of years with sub-standard foreign recruits. But how far has Indian football progressed? Next is the proposed Indian Super League. That, mark my words, would not be of any help at all.

The eternal truth is that Indian football has to develop from within. No amount of money or talent transfusion will be of any help. African and South American countries can offer very little to young trainees by way of facilities and finance. Yet, how do they manage to produce outstanding talents? Even players from economically advanced nations dance to the samba. Why does this happen? Surprisingly no one seems to be bothered. The golden age of Indian soccer was between 1956 and 1962. Instead of eulogizing those truly great players, the trend now is to heap praise on players who have achieved nothing worthwhile during their heyday. This kind of hypocrisy will not help soccer to thrive in India.

Memories of men like Neville D’Souza, Peter Thangaraj, Arun Ghosh, Jarnail Singh, Tulsidas Balaram, Simon Sundararaj, Pradip Banerjee, Yousuf Khan and Chuni Goswami, among others, are fading away fast. This was the nucleus of footballers who helped India play fabulous football in Melbourne, Rome and Jakarta between 1956 and 1962. D’Souza scored four goals, including a hat-trick against Australia, in Melbourne in 1956. True to form, he was excluded from the 1960 Rome Olympic team. That’s another story for another time. Indian football exists in a cocoon of self-hypnosis. Unless we are honest to ourselves and to football, no improvement will ever take place. First, we need to accept that Indian football has been a failure even at the lowly Asian level.

We have even altered the facts of history to satisfy petty considerations. The first Indian team to win a title against a British team was not Mohun Bagan AC. Much before the IFA shield success of 1911, a team of players from Sovabazar had defeated East Surrey Regiment in the 1890s. That was the first time a group of local players had shown what it takes to defeat the Britons at their own game. This particular match — the Trades Cup final of 1892 — unfortunately, has been erased from history through the machinations of vested interests. Who has the time for the unfancied members of the Sovabazar clan? Sports historians and erudite journalists must not allow the truth to remain unexposed.

Today, India’s football administrators and players, in an effort to try and hide their own failures, have developed the habit of criticizing the rise and rise of Indian cricket. The asinine idea is that cricket is played among just 10 nations. In terms of sheer ignorance, this is the cherry on the cake. This kind of self-hypnosis will not help Indian soccer.

For the ignoramuses, cricket is played officially in 90 nations, under the International Cricket Council. After a process of participation and elimination, only the best 10 play Tests, just as only 32 nations play in the football World Cup, even though there are more than 200 nations in the Fifa list.

The Indian football brigade can take heart that there are about 50 nations still behind India. But what needs to be analyzed is the reason why we have fallen behind Japan and South Korea, teams that India used to beat with ease during our golden days between 1956 and 1962. Why are we behind Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Honduras, Columbia and others — teams that are economically weaker than India and can offer little by way of assistance to their own players?

Economically these countries are so backward that their players seek football-employment abroad. And because these players are exceptionally brilliant, they get lucrative jobs as soccer-professionals. On the contrary, our best players are so mediocre that they are turned back from wherever they go. We must learn to face this sad truth: we are just not good enough. There is no point in hiding behind excuses. Instead of finding fault with other sports and games, it is high time that we — India’s football fans — got truthful answers from the people concerned. It is my well-considered opinion that sponsorship will not help Indian soccer to prosper or progress. It will only help some people gain fame and fortune as is happening with the Indian Premier League in cricket. Indian football will not progress as long as we stick to our hypocritical ways. Do we have the courage to accept the truth that India, apart from 1952-62, were never good enough?