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Indian football slips further in 2006

December 29, 2006 13:53 IST

It seemed like a case of one step forward and two steps back for Indian football in 2006, which could not capitalise on the positive momentum generated last year.

India, which leapt to 117th spot at the turn of the year 12 months ago after the triumph at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup in Pakistan, plunged to 157th by the end of 2006 after forgettable outings in the Asian Cup qualifiers and the Doha Asian Games.

However, the All India Football Federation seems to be living in some other world, as it is still talking in terms of World Cup qualification in 2010 and 2014.

A change of coach and high-profile agreements with two footballing powerhouses did little to redress the despair of Indian football fans, who have almost resigned to the dismal fate of the national team.

The year started with India finding itself grouped with defending champions Japan and continental powerhouses Saudi Arabia, as well as Yemen, in the Asian Cup qualifiers.

Not even the die-hard Indian fans would have expected the team to come through such a tough pool, but the display of Syed Nayeemuddin's side in the first two matches of the campaign left the public as well as the AIFF searching for answers.

The team started with a 0-6 defeat at the hands of Japan in Yokohama. The result was not totally unexpected and it only showed the gulf between India and the top teams in Asia.

But the next game really left a bad taste in the mouth.

Playing at Delhi's Ambedkar Stadium, India went down 0-3 to a lower-ranked Yemen. The display by the team was so insipid that the team management was left bereft of answers.

The performance again brought to the fore the rift between the coach and captain Baichung Bhutia, which was papered over when Nayeem took the reins for his third term.

The shoddy performance was instrumental in Nayeem and the entire technical committee, including manager and former stalwart P K Banerjee, being shown the door by the Federation.

The AIFF this time decided to go for a foreign coach and signed a deal with Englishman Bob Houghton, who had taken China to the World Cup finals and also been at the helm with Uzbekistan.

Houghton stressed on the importance of bigger physique and roping in good players of Indian origin playing abroad as a possible route to success at the international level.

His first assignment with the India was a four-team invitational tournament in Canada, where the Indians lost to Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the opening game before defeating the Chinese U-20 team to finish third in the competition.

When India returned to the Asian Cup qualifiers, they put up a much better performance against Saudi Arabia while going down 0-3 in Kolkata.

But all the good work came unstuck when Houghton's men were thrashed 7-1 in the return leg at Jeddah.

A 0-3 defeat to Japan in Bangalore was followed by a 1-2 loss to Yemen, in which Houghton fielded a largely Under-23 side, with an eye on the Asian Games.

India, thus, ended their Asian Cup qualifying campaign without a point, scoring two goals and conceding 24 in six matches.

India did only marginally better at the Doha Asian Games. It was pitted against defending gold medallists Iran, Hong Kong and the Maldives in the group stage and managed only one hard-fought win and a draw out of the three games.

The team comprising mainly Under-23 players, with Bhutia, goalkeeper Sandip Nandy and Climax Lawrence as the three overage players allowed, had their hopes of advancement virtually snuffed out when they were held 1-1 by Hong Kong.

A goal in the dying minutes against the Maldives resulted in a 2-1 win, but India predictably went down 0-2 to Iran, though not without holding the Asian giants goalless till the 78th minute. However, four points were never going to be enough for a place in the last eight.

The team had gone on AIFF's expenses as the government refused to foot the bill saying there was no medal hope.

At the junior level, India failed to advance to the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Youth Championship hosted by Kolkata and Bangalore. The disappointing result prompted Uzbek coach Islam Akhmedov to tender his resignation.

On the domestic scene, Mahindra United became the National Football League champions for the first time and also claimed the IFA Shield at the end of the year.

Punjab became national champions for the seventh time, the first in 18 years, when they lifted the Santosh Trophy in Haryana. They beat Bengal in the final via a penalty-shootout.

The team from the eastern state, which used to dominate Indian football in the decades gone by, had reached the semi-final after a gap of seven years.

There was another first when Dempo Sports Club, Goa, claimed its maiden Durand Cup, beating JCT, Phagwara, in the title clash.

Off the field, Bhutia's 'will he-won't he' stance over international retirement gave the Federation and coach Houghton some sleepless nights.

The talismanic forward, who signed up for Mohun Bagan this season to form a potentially lethal strike pair with Brazilian Jose Ramirez Barreto, had expressed his willingness to bid farewell to national colours.

AIFF president Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi requested him to reconsider in "national interest" and postpone any such thought till after the Asian Games, a plea seconded by Houghton.

As things turned out, the footballer from Sikkim played for the country throughout the year but it hardly made any positive difference to the team's fortunes.

Bhutia also missed the crucial Asian Games tie against Iran, having seen two yellow cards in the previous games.

India's dipping stock in world football was not for any lack of initiative on the part of FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation.

The world governing body's 'Goal' project in India had started with initiatives in Delhi and Manipur, and towards the end of the year, Sikkim and Bangalore were added to the list.

The AFC is doing its bit to professionalise the set-up in the country, but only a handful of clubs have till date fulfilled the requirements as per the 'Vision India' draft. Tamil Nadu and Kerala were selected for the extension of the programme.

The AIFF itself needs to professionalise its functioning to take off in a big way in the country, the Asian body said.

The Federation is, however, busy dreaming about World Cup qualification in 2010 or 2014. The agreement signed with Brazil for training and development purposes during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to that country and another one between the Federation and the German Bundesliga would prove to be of little help if the game is not given a boost at the grass-roots level.

AIFF has planned 2007 as the year for talent search and has assured more effort and funds towards spotting budding youngsters at age-group tournaments. It is also considering starting a women's competition next year.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter has indicated that a new initiative for the uplift of footballing standards in India will be started next year.

The world body and AFC need to take an active interest in the game here because if corrective steps are not taken soon, football fans here would continue to drool over the skills of Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney without sparing a thought for the players who take the fields in their own country.

 

Tushar Bhaduri
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