ENGLAND TOUR HELPED GET OVER MENTAL BLOCK 

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By BY P. K. BANERJEE
  • Published 9.08.00
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The Indian soccer team's recent tour of England presented a blend of emotions, experiences and more importantly, some lessons in the methods of the modern version of the game. It also showed we can play tactically sound football and there is still some interest left in Indian football among expatriates. While some pundits back home demeaned our efforts saying we adopted a primitive, ultra-defensive style against the technically and physically superior professional English clubs, some others expressed delight when we drew the second match. To my mind, both views are equally unimportant. They are so because it is unwise to assess the gains of such a trip only by considering the results we achieved. Among other things, one has to look at the option we had, the way we prepared and our record against such sides. The last one is important because we rarely get the chance to play against European professionals at their home ground, even if they are first division English clubs and not national teams. Let us admit it was an 'exposure trip' and the outcome of the matches was really not of paramount importance. It was an opportunity to see what they do, how they do it and how we can benefit from watching and playing against them. Rather than putting our performance under the scanner, it would be more productive if we would sit back and think what we saw and try and assimilate them as much as we can. Not surprisingly, we found there were lessons for us both on and off the field. It was unbelievable to discover the kind of infrastructure the first division clubs (even school and university teams) enjoy and the professional manner in which they function. Be it team doctors or media-handling groups, whatever they do or whoever they employ, have this air of professionalism. This is in stark contrast to the lackadaisical attitude of our way of handling things. Not all of it, like laying high-breed grass on our turfs and maintaining state-of-the-art stadiums (including excellent dressing rooms and fully equipped medical rooms), is possible for us to implement as it is financially out of our reach. But things like appointing a full-time doctor for the national team or the clubs is certainly not beyond us. Needless to say it will help our players to stay fit, but a permanent medical expert will also grow familiar with the players' problems and the history and nature of their injuries. As far as the game is concerned, the Fulham match was actually a revelation. The way they use the length and width of the pitch, their off-the-ball forward movements and the manner in which they utilise their bigger frames was a treat to watch. The clever use of the off-side traps, when they caught us napping even near the centre-circle, also made us aware of our shortcomings. Their passing was so good that even 60-yard balls were released with supreme confidence and precision (which could not be intercepted). The way they open the game was also exemplary. All this can be mastered only after hours and hours of systematic training and it is time we started changing our methods. The most striking aspect of the way they train is that all facets of the game - trapping, passing, dribbling, shooting, tackling and heading - are practised with a marker on. Even goalkeepers are made to train under pressure. In a match situation, none of these things are done without a player breathing down your neck but the practice here is different. We insist on individual development in these departments without paying attention to what may happen in a match. Though one must laud our performance against West Bromwich Albion (0-0 draw), quite a few things remain to be done. What we need to do now is to follow video recordings of these matches and analyse them so that we can prepare better for our future international assignments. Also, there must be better co-ordination among our federation and the clubs so that we are at full strength when we take on such teams. It is purely because of the lack of understanding between the clubs and the federation that some players could not be included in the team. The team suffered, as did the players. Whatever the reason, it wasn't in the best interest of Indian football. On the positive side, this trip helped us get rid of the tendency to give in while facing superior rivals. The fact that players like Mahesh Gawli or Hardeep Saini did not wince against German World Cup veteran Karl Heinz Riedle or former Scotland captain John Collins was the biggest gain. People over there accepted that tactically we are not far behind. Technically and physically we are yet to match them but we have overcome the mental block. More such trips, for different age groups, can help things swing towards the better.