When the Indian football team, ranked a lowly 162nd in the world, were held to a 1-1 draw by Afghanistan, ranked 178, in the ongoing South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Cup in New Delhi, it signalled yet another depressing step backwards for the national team. By now, India’s top football players are used to these reversals—a few years on the upward curve, positive changes brought in by visionary managers, and then, much like the Indian hockey team, a long slide backwards.
Just a few months back, Englishman Bob Houghton was about to complete five eventful years as India’s coach. He had put in a system with long-term vision, picking the 15 best players in the country and persisting with them to hone them into a cohesive, fighting unit. Houghton fought for, and won, better training facilities for his team, more international exposure tours, and improved living facilities when the team was on tour. The changes could be seen on the pitch as well. After a long gap, the Indian football team began winning tournaments—the Nehru Cup in 2007, the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, and the Nehru Cup again in 2009. India also qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup, the first time since 1984 that the team managed to get into Asia’s top football tournament. Then it all fell apart in 2011, infighting between Houghton and the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and allegations of racism against the coach, saw Houghton depart. His replacement, Dempo Sports Club coach Armando Colaco, immediately wanted the Indian team to change its playing style completely, going from the long-ball-dominated counter-attacking play they had worked on for five years to “possession football”.
Afghanistan’s goalkeeper jumps to save a goal during their match against India at the SouthAsianFootball Federation (SAFF) Championship 2011, in New Delhi. By PTI
“That was not the right move,” says India’s former captain Baichung Bhutia. “Possession football needs a very high degree of skill and confidence, and years and years of practice. That’s why only the top football countries in the world, like Spain and Argentina, play like that. It’s also in their culture, so kids as young as 6 start learning how to play in the style right from the start, so when these kids develop into professional footballers, this style of play is already hardwired in them.”
Colaco lasted just four months in the job before going back to his old club. His deputy in the national team, former midfielder Savio Medeira, was promoted to the post of head coach. Yet another change was thrust upon the Indian players, but this one was more temperate.
”Top clubs like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid use both possession football and long ball. Many say FC Barcelona play only passing football but you can see they also use long balls. So we are trying to use both,” Medeira said ahead of India’s opening match against Afghanistan in the Saff Championships.
“This will definitely help the players, it’s a more balanced approach,” says football analyst and commentator Novy Kapadia. “But as usual, there is no long-term planning, no efforts at really developing a team. Savio has only been appointed till May 2012. What after that? No team can prosper if they keep changing coaches.”
It’s not just the coach who keeps changing—the Indian national team too is buzzing, with new players being inducted. The team for the Saff tournament includes a clutch of junior players who have come through the ranks, including striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, goalkeeper Karanjit Singh, defender Nirmal Chettri, and midfielders Lalrindika Ralte and Jewel Raja Shaikh. All these players have one thing in common; they all played for Pailan Arrows in the I-League, India’s top league, as part of an AIFF effort to give exposure to India’s Under-23 players.
“It seems like a good thing that the new generation has stepped in,” says Kapadia, “but these boys were supposed to play together for at least two-three seasons in the I-League to get a chance to develop into a strong team for the future. Instead, they have been put into the senior national team after barely one season in the top flight. Where did they get the chance to develop?”
India are grouped with Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in the group stage of the 2011 Saff Cup.