The Rise & Rise of Indian Football

It was a sweltering mid-August night in 2008 in the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi when the Uzbek referee Valentin Kovalenko blew the final whistle. Spectators were climbing the flag poles around the stadium in celebration & the TV commentator declared that he had just witnessed a historic event.

India had beaten Tajikistan convincingly in a 4-1 demolition derby. It had been an almost complete performance from the Indian national football team where their 4 goals included a hat-trick from star striker Sunil Chetri, himself a local Delhi boy.

Now many may ask, ‘Why do you care so much about one match of football?’ Out in the real world the Indian football team doesn’t mean much, & back in India it doesn’t mean a whole lot more. But for the 20,000 Indian football fans crowding the stadium on that night of 13th August, the result was a realisation of years of hard work to try & get Indian football back on the world map.

This match was not just any match, but the final of the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup — a tournament ‘…aimed at giving second-tier nations a chance to fight for glory’ according to AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam. India, as winners of this tournament now automatically qualifies to compete in the 2011 Asian Cup. It is the first time they will play in this competition since 1984, when they were ingloriously bundled out of the first round of the tournament without scoring a single goal.

Why is it so important to me that India is finally doing well in football? Well for one thing, I am an Indian who is sick of being a citizen of a country with a one-dimensional sporting interest i.e. cricket. Secondly, I would like to see the day when the Indian football team finally plays in a World Cup tournament & I firmly believe that we are on the path to realising that goal. Lastly, I think that a nation with the second largest population in the world must have the talent pool necessary to field 11 players that can take on the world’s best in the world’s greatest game.

This being said, India wasn’t always wandering in the dark in terms of footballing greatness. There was a time when we did take on the world’s best in the 1950s & ’60s. We won the gold medals in the 1951 & 1962 Asian Games & were placed 4th in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Our best performance on the international stage was when we were runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup. Sadly, our one chance of world cup glory came in 1950 when we were invited by FIFA to take part in the tournament in Brazil. Inexplicably, our players refused to play in anything other than their bare feet & FIFA rules barred us from participating for this very reason. Since then we have struggled to get into the competition & Indian football lost its sheen & popularity from the 1970s onwards. All the gains we had made in the first 2 decades since Independence were lost in the sands of time.

Fast-forward to a new story. After qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup, bin Hammam stated, ‘…India grabbed the chance with both hands. They now have a great opportunity to prove themselves once again…’. Maybe I’m being too optimistic now, but I feel the same way. Like many Indians I am a great believer in destiny. The long awaited glory must be at hand, & it will happen in my lifetime!

The unlikely architect of this current resurgence in Indian football was appointed manager of the national team in 2006 by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). Coach Bob Houghton has had a long career in football management, spanning almost 40 years. A former player for Fulham he began coaching in England at the tender age of 21 & has been an assistant manager to the likes of Bobby Robson. His single greatest achievement in club management has been to put Swedish football on the world map when he coached Malmo FF to the European Cup final in 1979 against Nottingham Forrest (then managed by Brian Clough). Till date it has been the first & only time a Swedish team has reached the European Cup final.

Since then he has coached clubs in Canada, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Switzerland & the USA. His first experience as manager of a national team came when he became coach of China in 1997. He coached them to their first win against Japan in modern history & won the bronze medal in the 1998 Asian Games. He left in 1999 but the foundations of the team he built eventually qualified for the World Cup in 2002, the first time in its nation’s history.

Since his appointment in 2006 by the AIFF, he has carefully developed a side that has many of the characteristic hallmarks of the English game. After watching the Nehru Cup in 2007 & the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 (both tournaments in which he coached the side to victory) I have developed a few thoughts about the changes I have seen in the standard of play in the Indian side.

The most important thing that has improved is the work rate of the players. Houghton has considerably enhanced the level of player fitness & conditioning to the point where they can run the opposition off their feet. They go for every ball, they keep it moving & they are not afraid to put in the crunching tackles to win it back. The second thing that comes to mind (& something I have never seen in the national team before) is the spirit & heart with which the side competes. Bob Houghton has somehow instilled such belief in his players that they fight for possession right till the very last second of play.

The passion & intensity I’ve seen in the players eyes in the last 2 years has been a heart warming revelation. The love & respect they have for their coach is evident at the end of every match they win. They come off the pitch & he is the first one they all embrace before they trudge off to the dressing rooms.

To me, these qualities are very promising for a developing football nation & contribute directly to the team cohesiveness I see on the pitch. I can go on about other improvements in their game. No English manager is content without inculcating long ball tactics in his players & Houghton has done that very well. Long balls from mid-field, crosses from the wings & headers into the goal…the players have made these weapons a natural part of their game. But there is more to this than meets the eye. They have also become better at their build up play from mid-field & ever since the Nehru Cup, I have noticed that they can be absolutely devastating on the counter-attack.

That is not to say the team is without flaws. The most glaring one is their significant lack of pace. Apart from their star strikers Chetri & Bhaichung Bhutia, the rest of the players have a worrying lack of it. They also lack that requisite flair that world beaters tend to need to win big competitions. Lastly, they have a questionable record away from home. Houghton till date has been the 2nd most successful manager of the Indian football team (56% win ratio), but most of his victories have come on home soil where the Indian crowd is a significant morale booster.

Leaving all this aside for the moment, it is worthy to note that during his management many young players have come into the side & have already made their mark in the game. Some of the key players to watch out for in 2011…

Sunil Chetri (Striker) — India’s very own pocket sized dynamo & the player that most reminds me of Michael Owen in his heyday. His speed & skill is phenomenal & he is the team’s supreme goal-poacher. I expect him to make his mark on the world stage come 2011.

Bhachung Bhutia (Striker) — already a legend in Indian football & our very own Dennis Bergkamp. He is the only player I know of who has a football stadium named after him. His experience is essential to the team’s success & he can almost match Chetri for pace. As captain of the team he is responsible for keeping their morale up & he has done a stellar job so far.

NP Pradeep (Midfield) — this guy can run all day long. He is a key component of the team’s ‘engine room’ & a true box-to-box midfielder. Has a tendency to pop up in the penalty area & traumatize opposition goalkeepers with his headers.

Climax Lawrence (Midfield) — What a name! India’s playmaker & very own Andrea Pirlo. Another experienced pro, he will be essential in 2011.

Mehraj Wadoo (Midfield) — aka ‘The Tank’. His size & physique render him uniquely capable of breaking down opposition attacks in his preferred defensive mid-field position.

Steven Dias (Midifield) — this right winger reminds me a lot of David Beckham. He has a vicious right foot & is not afraid to use it. He can deliver crosses & long-balls from the wings & mid-field with breath-taking power as well as pin-point accuracy. He is also our free-kick specialist.
Deepak Kumar Mondal, Mahesh Gawli & Gourmangi Singh (Defense) — 3 centre backs who are very good at what they do. They keep a very tight backline & are not afraid to bomb forward on the counter-attack.

Subrata Pal (Goalkeeper) — he is as talented as Jens Lehmann, & just as crazy. His lightning quick reflexes & ability to close down attackers in one-on-one situations are amazing. He is no slouch with the aerial balls either. His aggressiveness on the pitch has already become legendary in Indian footballing lore in the short time he has been in the side. A player the opposition will have to watch out for if they are ever in his penalty box.

Needless to say I am filled with expectations from this team. There has always been a significant ‘underground’ fan base for football in India. I still believe it is the most played sport in Indian schools across the country & this belief comes from my own experiences in school there. Competing in the Asian Cup in 2011 is the pinnacle of achievement in my lifetime & I hope to see them get better & better as I get older. If we do well, I have no doubt that interest in football will explode in this country & help provide much needed national stars for years to come.

Full credit must go to the AIFF. With their appointment of Houghton & willingness to listen to his inputs, they have sent important signals that despite a lack of sufficient resources they are making serious efforts to develop football in India. They agreed to his suggestions of sending the team on a tour of Portugal & playing friendlies against Taiwan & Malaysia in preparation for the AFC Challenge Cup. This experience was crucial in helping us to victory.

The team have got their fundamentals down pat. They now have 3 years to work on their game & elevate their skill levels. With his wealth of experience I have no doubt that Houghton & the team can do it.

Come on India, make us proud! The sky is the limit…

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).

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