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A forgettable year for Indian football

December 24, 2004 13:33 IST

After a brief flirtation with hope for two seasons, Indian soccer standards went downhill in 2004 -- a year which came to a chilling end with the tragic on-field death of Brazilian striker Cristiano Junior.

If 2002 and 2003 rekindled optimism for a turnaround in the country's soccer fortunes under the Anglo-Cypriot chief coach Stephen Constantine, the outgoing year gave a rude jolt to the rising expectations as the national squad stumbled from match to match suffering one humiliating loss after another.

In 2002, after Constantine took over, India emerged surprise champions in the LG Cup at Vietnam before narrowly missing a last eight berth in the Asian Games. The following year saw India finishing runners up in the first ever Afro-Asian Games with the colts winning a rare trophy in the British Isles and returning good performances in the Asian age-group tourneys.

But 2004 proved anti-climactic. India failed to bag the gold in their favourite hunting ground -- the SAF Games -- and bowed out as usual in the first round of the World Cup qualifiers, but not before facing ignominious defeats against Japan and Oman that led to the call for Constantine's scalp.

However, it was the death of the highly talented Junior in the Federation Cup final that came as the biggest shock.

It brought out into the open yet again the absence of even basic facilities in Indian soccer and made international headlines forcing world governing body FIFA and Asian Football Confederation to take note of the tragedy as accusations flew thick and fast about Mohun Bagan custodian Subrata Paul's responsibility in the striker's death.

It was at the SAF Games in Islamabad that the downslide started. The Indians, missing a host of stars due to injury, managed to claim only the silver finishing second best to arch-rivals Pakistan in the final.

The World Cup preliminaries saw India being drubbed 1-5 by Oman and humiliated 0-7 by Asian powerhouse Japan. They put up a gritty opening half display against Japan in the first half of the home leg in Kolkata but in the end lost 0-4.

A 1-0 win over Singapore at Goa and a goalless draw versus Oman in Muscat were the only silver lining for the Indians who conceded as many as 18 goals in their six outings.

The World Cup disappointment was matched by a dismal LG Cup show in Vietnam, where India had scripted a fantastic title finish in 2002.

India crashed out at the semi final stage going down 0-4 to a Korean University selections team after having lost 1-2 to Vietnam. A 2-1 win over a weak Myanmar side was the only saving grace for the side led by Baichung Bhutia.

Bhutia, incidentally, had a poor season having to cool his heels on the benches for the major part of the year following recurring injuries.

With failures being the rule rather than the exception, Constantine had a tough time with the media and former stars raising questions about his team selection, autocratic attitude and continuous sidelining of some talented players.

At the end of the year, it now seems only a matter of time before Constantine is shown the door, but the AIFF is in a dilemma. It does not want to earn the AFC's wrath by booting out the Anglo-Cypriot before his contract terminates in the middle of next year.

But more importantly, the AIFF is not sure of getting a good replacement with its meagre financial resources, which have impeded the development of a proper soccer infrastructure in the country.

The lack of facilities during major meets became evident as Junior, top scorer in the last National Football League, died following a collision with Bagan custodian Paul after netting the second goal for his side Dempo Sports Club in the Federation Cup final at Bangalore.

Junior was rushed to a hospital after he collapsed, but as the Dempo players were about to celebrate their maiden Cup conquest came the news that the forward was no more. Investigation showed that no doctor was present on the ground, the two 'medical staff' on duty were only physiotherapists, and Junior was taken to a hospital which was quite far off.

AIFF president Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi later admitted the lack of facilities at the grounds, and announced some corrective measures to be put in place from the next edition of the NFL beginning in January.

Match referees have been told not to start matches until and unless they were satisfied about the medical facilities on the ground, while local organisers would be required to tie up with hospitals close to the ground for any emergency.

Junior's death also gave rise to a controversy, with his widow Julianna holding Paul responsible for her husband's death, despite the post mortem report saying that he had died of cardiac failure due to over excitement after scoring the goal.

A section of officials and star players, led by Bhutia and I M Vijayan, also demanded punitive action against Paul, as the AIFF placed the goalkeeper under suspension, even though Bagan rallied behind the young custodian.

With a second post mortem of Junior conducted in Brazil, and FIFA reportedly taking over the issue, there seems to be a growing apprehension that the last word has not been said on the matter, and the AIFF and Bagan could face the music if matters are not handled properly.

It was, however, a good year for the glamour outfit East Bengal, who reached the quarter final of the AFC Cup, before losing 0-3 to Syrian club Al Jaish in the away encounter. The two sides had been locked goalless in the India leg.

Mahindra United, the other Indian entry, made their exit in the group league itself.

East Bengal also successfully defended their National Football League crown, equalling Mohun Bagan's feat of three title triumphs in the premiere event of Indian soccer.

Towards the end of the year, the red and gold brigade regained the Durand Cup, edging past arch-rivals Mohun Bagan 2-1 in the final.

The state championship Santosh Trophy was won by Kerala who beat Punjab 3-2 in the final in Delhi.

Off the field, former Indian captain and legendary coach P K Banerjee was bestowed the prestigious FIFA centennial order of merit, while Mohun Bagan president Swapan Sadhan Bose did the country proud with his nomination in the first ever World Club Football Task Force constituted by the world body.

Sirshendu Panth
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