Europe has woken up from the World Cup hangover and football there — clubs and national teams alike — has slipped back to the cycle of routine. Even the focus of our football right now is on the national team and the universal clash of commitment between club and country indicates that the game here is alive.
Football in India is going through a crucial phase. Economic forces that govern the game have started showing interest here and for the first time in recent memory, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is trying to cash in on it.
Roping in a marketing agency which spells out goals in clear terms, the tours of England, having two foreign coaches for the senior and junior teams are all indications that efforts are being made.
Amid all these positive signs and some encouraging performances by the national teams, some essential elements are still not in place. An inspection team from Fifa and AFC recently visited the country and is likely to recommend measures for improvement.
The point here is to remember that few of the suggestions made by a similar inspection team in 1995 were implemented.
A strong contention of the visiting inspectors in 1995 was that all clubs taking part in the National League must pay attention to youth development and sustain junior teams. The National League has evolved into the country’s premier tournament, but development of junior teams is far from reality.
Suggestions that a national football calendar must be in place and a set of players identified as national players — who will be forbidden from playing more than a fixed number of matches per year — have also not been seriously accepted.
So, while some may hope resurrection is on the horizon, I keep fingers crossed and say that unless the above-mentioned ideas are executed, our football will not reach the desired level. Absence of a master plan is our bane and this Fifa-AFC team that came to India recently, should be able to detect this.
A look at the country’s sport structure reveals an interesting point. Barring cricket and football, all other disciplines are directly dependant on government assistance, which comes largely through the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Although football is not completely self-sufficient, the clubs are there to lend it an air of individuality — by creating and meeting its own demands.
The clubs, without any assistance from the government, generate their own funds and the amount of money in circulation these days suggests they are not doing a bad job. Considering this, the decision of the AIFF to detain players at national camps rather than release them for the clubs appears harsh.
This is a problem in every football-playing nation and years of brainstorming have not thrown up a solution to please all.
In India, the only way to arrive at an acceptable position is a collective effort involving all concerned. The AIFF, the national coaches, the clubs and their coaches must sit and work out a common programme. The clubs do suffer if they don’t get the services of players on their payroll and it’s good of them to accept doing way with the stars till the Asian Games.
The real problem, however, comes after that. There will be the Santosh Trophy, SAFF Cup and maybe another international tournament this season. These fixtures will clash with the club tournaments and it’s imperative that a solution is worked out now in order to avoid a late conflict.
Before signing off, I must admit that I was pleased with the spirit shown by the Indian players in the recent matches against Jamaica. Though the opposition wasn’t at full strength, Bhaichung Bhutia & Co. showed the heart to fight.
Asian Games will be a different task and what they will have to retain is focus. For inspiration, they might look up to Mahesh Bhupathi.