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Former Brazilian footballer Pele at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata on Sunday. Photo: AFP
Former Brazilian footballer Pele at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Even Pele can’t lift Indian football from its morass

Pele's visit to India is great for nostalgia lovers but will do little to improve our football skills or performance

Thirty-eight years after he first touched down in Kolkata, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pele, is back again for another visit. Arguably the world’s greatest footballer, his last visit brought the city’s faithful out in lakhs as they lined up the route his cavalcade was expected to take from the airport to the city.

Pele disappointed them by taking a different route to his hotel in the middle of the night, but delighted his fans two days later when he turned out for his club New York Cosmos against local heavyweights Mohun Bagan.

Sadly that visit in 1977 and the excitement it generated did little for the performance of Indian football in the ensuing four decades. If anything, India’s rating has plummeted in these years. From being a competitive side in Asia it is now struggling to hold its own in the South Asian league. Indeed far more significant than the 2-2 draw Mohun Bagan played out with Pele’s Cosmos club on that day was the same team’s draw against Russian club Ararat a year later in the finals of the IFA Shield. The Russian team had a number of world cuppers in its side and was playing to win, not to entertain.

Of course, the showing in the 1970s was already looking pale as compared with the halcyon days of the 1950s topped by the national team’s fourth place finish in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Its current Fifa ranking of 167 in the world (and 133 its average position over the last 22 years) is clearly the nadir as evidenced by India’s showing in its last four World Cup qualifiers in which it has lost to teams like Guam and Turkmenistan.

In recent years, a number of top football icons like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi have come to India as part of some tamasha or the other. The crowds have flocked to watch them somnambulating on the field and sponsors have milked these visits. On the ground Indian football’s sharp decline continues oblivious to such shenanigans.

Clearly there has been no rub-off effect and the hype of these visits has had no impact on the performance of the players. Perhaps by adopting the Argentine national team as our own (as seems to be the case every time a World Cup comes along) and cheering Manchester United in the Premier League as if it were a local Indian club, we have satiated our urge to win as Team India. We expect little from our own clubs or the national team, as if that is of little consequence as long as Argentina or Brazil do well at the World Cup.

The South Koreans and the Japanese became major global competitors in a sport they embraced long after we did by urging their national team on to success in Asia and at the world level. The J league in Japan, formed to give the game in the country a global competitive platform, attracted the best players in the world not 40-something retirees. South Korea’s squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil had three players, Kim Bo-Kyung, Ki Sung-Yueng and Park Chu-Young, who had honed their skills in the English Premier League.

Nations become good at sport by backing their national stars and their national teams. In Ivory Coast, the heroes are men like Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou. Japan’s international success rests on the shoulders of players like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, local boys who made it good in the toughest leagues in the world.

Indian cricket also turned the corner when the crowds came to cheer Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and later Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S Laxman. For all the silken skills of Neil Harvey and Colin Cowdrey, much admired by Indian cricket aficionados of the 1960s, the Indian team’s performance at that stage was woeful.

What lifts national performance is pride in its own team’s showing. Hosting Pele may be a great tribute to the legendary player but will do little to improve India’s performance in the game.

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