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Indian football: chance to redeem itself

December 27, 2005 17:36 IST

The forgotten game of the masses, which had no dearth of nay-sayers over the recent past, made a successful return to the Indian consciousness at the end of the year.

Indian football captain Baichung Bhutia kisses the SAFF CupA largely lacklustre year in Indian football ended on a positive note when the national team regained its regional supremacy by winning the SAFF Championship in Karachi.

India, rightly considered the regional football powerhouse, had the embarrassment of not having made it to the title match of the tournament two years ago in Dhaka.

The championship was the first assignment for Syed Nayeemuddin, who took over as national coach in October for the third time.

India, which was ranked in the 130s and 140s in the FIFA world rankings in the recent past, moved to 127th after the Karachi triumph.

The coach also brought back Baichung Bhutia, with whom he had had differences in the past, as skipper, and the Sikkimese striker repaid the faith by scoring in the SAFF Cup final against Bangladesh.

The ace goal-poacher was plying his trade for M K Selangor Land of Malaysia and joined East Bengal on his return to India.

The victory was achieved without any proper preparation as a cluttered domestic schedule, which featured back-to-back tournaments resulting in fatigue and injuries, with hardly left any time for a training camp.

Nayeem came at the helm after the All India Football Federation dumped Sukhwinder Singh under whom the team performed disastrously on the tours to Pakistan and Fiji.

The AIFF went back to an Indian coach when they did not renew the contract with Stephen Constantine in June. He has since gone back to England to coach first division side Millwall.

The Hyderabad-born Nayeem was appointed after a selection process, where he pipped three other contenders, including former Mohun Bagan and India stalwart Subrata Bhattacharya.

The year also saw a shift in the domestic power shift with clubs from Goa and Maharashtra claiming almost all the silverware up for grabs leaving the Kolkata big guns far behind

The maidan giants suffered because of lack of stability at the helm.

East Bengal's celebrated coach Subhash Bhowmick was arrested by CBI sleuths while allegedly accepting bribe from a businessman. He made matters worse for himself when he assaulted a police official.

Former East Bengal player Bikash Panji was appointed as the caretaker coach at the Durand Cup where the team failed to progress beyond the group stages. The club has now appointed Belgian Philippe de Ridder as coach.

Amal Dutta, who saved Mohun Bagan the ignominy of relegation from the top division of the National Football League, resigned after the club management appointed a goalkeeping coach and physical instructor without consulting him.

Dutta was also instrumental in Bagan lifting the Kolkata Super Division title with an unbeaten record. Jahar Das has been appointed as the coach for the National Football League early next year.

Biswajit Bhattacharjee also quit as Mohammedan Sporting coach after his team beat East Bengal in the IFA Shield complaining of interference and poor atmosphere at the club. Mohammad Habib was in charge for the Durand Cup.

On the positive side, AIFF signed a lucrative telecast deal with Zee Sports for the next 10 years worth Rs 273 crore. The quality of coverage of the Federation Cup and Santosh Trophy enlivened the game and promised to make Indian footballers household names.

The players also got richer when they received Rs 1.2 lakh each after their SAFF Cup victory.

On the domestic front, Dempo Sports Club, Goa, won the National Football League for the first time with Armando Colaco being the successful coach.

Sporting Clube-de-Goa's Nigerian striker Macpherlin Dudu Omagbemi was adjudged the Player of the ninth NFL as well as the leading scorer with 21 goals.

Sporting won the Super Cup played between the winners and runners-up of the league, beating Dempo 3-0.

Mahindra United won the Federation Cup defeating Sporting Clube-de-Goa in the final, courtesy a goal by Brazilian Jose Ramirez Barreto in the last minute of extra time.

In the national championship, the Santosh Trophy, Goa needed extra time to prevail over Maharashtra in the final.

The tournament had its share of controversy with a decision by referee Shaji Kurian in the quarter-final league game between Manipur and Goa resulting in a mass agitation in the northeastern state.

Four of Manipur players were also reported for ill-conduct by the tournament's disciplinary committee.

But as the decision could not be reversed, Goa's status as national champions stood, while the AIFF declined to take action against any player in a bid to close the chapter.

Army XI came from nowhere to win their first Durand Cup, becoming the first Services team in 36 years to claim the second oldest football tournament in the world.

They probably were the first team to win the coveted cup without winning a single match in open play. They drew with Air India, Mumbai and Dempo Sports Club, Goa and beat JCT Mills, Phagwara, and Sporting Clube-de-Goa via penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals and finals respectively.

German giants Bayern Munich sent their youth team to the IFA Shield and walked away with the trophy beating Eveready Association, Kolkata, 5-1 in the final.

There was much controversy about the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan tie in the IFA Shield which the former won 4-1, thanks to some howlers from Bagan custodian Subrata Paul. The goalkeeper, who collided with Dempo's Brazilian player, Junior in last year's Federation Cup final, resulting in the forward's death, was alleged to have taken money for throwing away the match against the arch-rivals. The charges have since been withdrawn.

But there was success against foreign clubs when the Bengal U-21 side beat AC Milan U-18 outfit 2-1.

The cluttered schedule and international commitments resulted in frequent differences between clubs, national team management and the federation over releasing players for national duty. Organisers allowed three foreign players each in teams for the IFA Shield and Durand Cup.

Climax LawrenceDempo midfielder Climax Lawrence was adjudged Player of the Year for his performances for club, country and state. The former Salgaocar player, who has also represented East Bengal, played a key role in Goa winning the Santosh Trophy.

On a sour note, the treatment meted to P K Banerjee, the manager of the Indian team at the SAFF Cup, a stalwart in his own right, would be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Banerjee was to leave from Karachi to Abu Dhabi on his way to the United States to attend his daughter's convocation. The Pakistani officials did not let him leave citing some unfulfilled procedural requirements, humiliating the former Indian captain in the process.

East Bengal and Dempo represented India at the AFC Cup but neither team managed to make it to the quarter-final knock-out stage.

On the international stage, apart from the SAFF Cup success late in the year, there was not much to celebrate. On the tour to Pakistan in June, Indian drew 1-1 with the hosts in Quetta, beat them 1-0 in Peshawar but went down 0-3 at Lahore to lose the series.

Things got worse in Fiji in August where the under-23 team lost to Province Ba 0-1 before going down to their national side 0-1 and 1-2. The two overseas debacles cost coach Sukhwinder Singh his job.

The India under-20 side had to face the ignominy of a 0-11 reverse against Myanmar in the four-nation Royal Challenge Cup in Yangon in October. They also went down 1-3 to China and 0-2 to Bangladesh. Besides India, the other teams fielded under-23 outfits.

India failed to qualify for the final round of the Asian under-17 championships to be played in Singapore next year. In the three-team group matches played in New Delhi, India thrashed Pakistan 9-0 but went down 2-3 to Tajikistan.

The national women's team bowed out of the AFC Championship at the quarter-final stage. They beat Guam 10-0 but went down 1-2 and 2-3 to Chinese Taipei and Thailand respectively in the competition held in Vietnam in June.

In the Vietnam Coal International tournament in October, the Indian eves went down 0-1 to Cua Ong Coal (Vietnam II). They also lost to Taiwan and Vietnam by an identical 1-2 margin. India finished 2005 ranked 56th in the world.

As we move into a new year, it is important to build on the momentum of the SAFF Cup victory. We have a host of promising youngsters who can take Indian football higher.

Players like Mehraj din Wadoo, Syed Rahim Nabi, Mehtab Hussain, Sandip Nandi, M Suresh, N S Manju, K Ajayan and Steven Dias have a lot to offer to the country.

The test starts with the Asia Cup qualifiers in February-March and leads to the Asian Games in Doha next December. Coach Syed Nayeemuddin has talked about foreign exposure trips and modern training methods.

Clubs are also exploring ways to improve themselves. Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan, for one, are looking at possible tie-ups with European powerhouses Liverpool and Barcelona for the benefit of their youth squads.

The AIFF has restricted the premier division of the National Football League to 10 sides but needs to look at the availability and maintenance of football grounds around the country.

It also plans to introduce a third division for the NFL and a new competition called 'President's Cup' for teams relegated from the top division as well as outstanding emerging teams.

The Federation has also expressed its resolve to crack down on age restriction violations, that are the bane of many junior tournaments, as well as factionalism in various state associations.

With a view to provide financial security to footballers, a players benevolent corpus of at least Rs one crore has been proposed.

If a part of that fund is used for the development of the game at the grass-roots level and academies to groom talented youngsters, Indian football would not be languishing at the international level in times to come.

 

Tushar Bhaduri
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