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September 13, 2000

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Dettop.gif

Hunger pangs for soccer stars

Libero

And the gold medal goes to er...

How far is India from qualifying to play at the Olympiad? Let's do a quick recap of our performance so far, before we look ahead.

We debuted in 1948 and qualified for the next 3 Olympiads. Our best showing was at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. We advanced to the semi-finals where we shot into the lead but eventually lost 1-4 to Yugoslavia. Our dispirited side played Bulgaria for the bronze medal and got trounced 0-3. We haven't qualified since 1960.

Yes, football in India is in a comatose state ever since. Mind you, the sport is not short of patronage. From industrialists to industrial houses, from entrepreneurs to Non Resident Indians, league sides are not without the largesse of benefactors. It's strange that while an average season reads like a geography lesson, we're nowhere close to qualifying for the Olympics.

So what ails Indian football? It sucks from the grassroots upwards. Sadly, there's no academy which ensures that once a prodigy ties his bootlaces, he keeps them on for a career. The Tata Football Academy and Sesa's began as noble causes but they are nowhere close to a conveyor belt of football talent.

Whatever talent surfaces, dies a premature death in a cesspool reeking of commerce. Then again, our local soccer stars are a contented lot taking home dotcom salaries. Not for them the challenges of looking westwards la Bhaichung to hone their skills. If only a handful of players had an iota of ballsiness, we'd make all of Asia sweat to qualify for the Olympiad and the World Cup.

To make matters worse, our administration sounds the death-knell. Selecting the national side is a charade of balancing the quota of players from different regions. If tokenism is given a break, then it's a year of partisan officials handpicking players from one of the football states of Bengal, Goa or Kerala. Officialdom's got to be lying if AIFF translates to All India Football Federation.

We desperately need our football authorities to go about its business with a sense of purpose. For a start, soccer nurseries are an imperative. If there's a talent hunt done today, you'd find at least one team in the age group of 11-14 with innate skills to don national colours for the 2008 edition of the Olympics. Don't catch them young today, and chances are these youngsters will be playing a sport which catches their parents' fancy.

A foreign coach to train the football talents of the future is a must. When you import a football coach, you bring in a football brain which sees the sport as a highlights package on television. We may have capacity filled stadia at keenly contested ties during the National League but there are times when the play loses out on the basics. Learn them early and players can rehearse scoring goals in their dreams.

Which still leaves the question, "When will India qualify for the Olympics?" hanging. Let's say, if everybody concerned does the needful at internet speed, we stand a chance in 2008. If we don't, we should stop kidding ourselves about playing the sport and hang our boots.

Artistry unplugged.

A Visa commercial for the Olympics speaks about the world of over commercialisation followed followed by a subtle pitch for the official credit card of Sydney 2000. This idiom is so true about modern football. In July end, Argentina played Brazil in a World Cup qualifying tie. The aggregate value of the players on the pitch was - please don't choke - a staggering 280 million. Gabriel Batistuta and Ronaldo missed the match with injuries or else they'd have added roughly another 50 m to the bill.

Thankfully at the Sydney Olympiad, the pitch will be paved with noble intentions, not obscene paychecks. At the Olympics, all players except three must be under 23 years. So what's on show will be talent thirsting to make a mark on the world stage. Watch out for Nigeria, Italy and Spain. Not to forget Brazil.

Look forward to thrills galore. Football is the first discipline which sees action at Sydney. In fact, football kicks off on September 13, 48 hours before the official Opening Ceremony. While other disciplines are groaning to muster enthusiasm, we learn that the football games are a full house.

Defending champions, Nigeria will be without Kanu, the architect of the gold medal at Atlanta 1996. Arsenal's reportedly refusing to let him play at the Olympiad due to league commitments.

No such problems for Italy. The Azzurris are taking the Olympiad jig so seriously, they have delayed the Serie A beyond the Olympiad.

Keep a close eye on Ronaldinho of Brazil. Romario believes that this prodiguous talent will propel Brazil from its qualifying skirmishes to World Cup glory. All of Brazil needs Ronaldinho to do the star turn at Sydney. After all, Brazil has never won a gold medal at the Olympics! If you are an Indian soccer fan, it's some consolation. If you are a Brazilian, you're probably suffering from amnesia.

Tchau (ciao in Brazilian) for now.

Mail Sports Editor

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