The fall of Indian football

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As the Asian Cup gets underway, we look at the changing state of football in India

Australia is currently hosting the 16th AFC Asian Cup Football tournament. From its humble beginnings in 1956, the Asian Cup event has grown into the region’s biggest football bonanza which stands proudly alongside any top level competition around the globe in terms of excitement, entertainment and organisation. It brings together Asia’s top national teams every four years in a fantastic feast of top-notch football. Australia has been part of Asian circuit since 2006.

With 16 top regional football nations (Japan, Australia, Korea Republic, DPR Korea, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Uzbekistan, UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, China PR, Iraq, Palestine and Qatar) participating, this 23-day, 32-match tournament is set to be a feast for fans in Australia. Unfortunately though, and a bit disappointing for the half a million strong Indian diaspora down under, Team India failed miserably to get into the final 16.

India’s current world ranking among 199 football-nations is 159, while in Asia their equivalent position is 30 among 46. The number doesn’t look great, but an entirely different picture emerges if we go back to the 1950s and ‘60s when India was considered one of the top 20 nations in the football world. At that time there was no formal process for ranking teams globally, it was largely based on performance.

Football was introduced in the sub-continent by the British and, after gaining independence from them in 1947, India made its Olympic debut in football at the 1948 London Games, but lost 1-2 to France in the first match. The national team then qualified for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but were not allowed to participate as Indian players played barefoot, while the wearing of boots was a mandatory requirement. In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India became the first Asian nation to reach the semi-finals defeating Australia 4-2 in the quarterfinals. The hallmark of the win was the hat trick by centre forward Neville D’Souza, who became the first and, until now, only Asian to achieve the feat in the Olympics.

Achieving the pinnacle in Asian football, India peaked during that period winning gold at the New Delhi and Jakarta Asian Games in 1951 and 1962 respectively, followed by finishing runners up at the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia in 1959 and 1964 and then the 3rd Asian Cup in Israel in 1964.

A downhill journey has taken place since then, though the national team managed to snatch the bronze medal at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970.

So, what really contributed to this massive fall, from the top to the bottom, in the span of a few decades?

“Perhaps complacency and a lack of forward planning,” said septuagenarian footballer Chuni Goswami when I caught up with him during my recent visit to Kolkata.

Chuni is unquestionably a living legend of Indian football. Celebrated as one of the best inside-forwards India has ever produced, he made his first international appearance in 1956 and then played in over 50 matches in major tournaments like the Olympics, Asian Games, Asian Cup and Merdeka Football Tournament. One of the best in his category in Asia during his heyday, he captained India to win the Asian Games gold medal in 1962 and the runners up trophies at the Asian Cup and Merdeka Cup in 1964. During that time his name was almost permanent on the list of Asian All Stars XI. He was also a good cricketer. He played 46 first class matches, captained the state team and finished off with a batting and bowling average of 28 and 24 respectively. Outside sports, he spent a major part of his working life as a Senior Manager with the State Bank of India.

According to Chuni Goswami, a key factor for India’s success during the early 1960s was the presence of several great footballers in the team. Alongside him, that included all-time greats like Pradip Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram, Ram Bahadur, Yousef Khan, Jarnail Singh, Arun Ghosh, Varadwaj and Peter Thangaraj. They were all regarded as world-class footballers and had the potential to achieve much more if they had the appropriate opportunity of weighing themselves further at international levels beyond the Olympics and Asian Cup every four years. But it didn’t happen that way, mainly because of the inward focussed attitude of football administrators of the time. Only Chuni in his prime had an offer from the famous English Club Tottenham Hotspur, but declined it in order to avoid losing his job with the bank.

“Money didn’t drive us at all,” Chuni said. “Most of us then had a job – either with a bank or a state or central government agency like the Railways or Services. We were happy with it while rigorously playing for our local clubs or office teams in Calcutta, Hyderabad, Chennai or Mumbai. Inter club rivalry was immense and winning the IFA Shield or Durand Cup for the club was imaginably more important than thinking of playing for any European side.”

“However, when playing for India, we were a unified team with strong national pride,” Chuni continued. “That passionate hunger for achieving something for our country gave us the killer instinct,” he added, while reminiscing about the golden days of Indian football. “Off course to this, we need to add the contributions of our coach Rahim without whom the results could have been different.”

Regarded as the architect of modern Indian football, Syed Abdul Rahim was the coach of the Indian national team from 1950 until his death in 1963. He was a great motivator and understood the game very well. It is said what he taught his players in the 50s were subscribed to in Brazil almost a decade a later. He had the extraordinary endowment of spotting talent. His death can be regarded as a significant trigger for the collapse of Indian football as many talents since then passed unnoticed or were not amply nurtured.

Simultaneously, the dynamics and style of the game then started changing worldwide. Speed and physical power took over dribbling skills and ground play, which were the strengths of Indian footballers. Science and technology were introduced to analyse own and opposition team strengths and weaknesses. Physical exercise with weights and modern instruments became an integral part of training. Diets were changed for healthier lifestyles. Top players turned professional – joining clubs all around the globe and starting to learn from each other, vastly improving the standard of the game.

“We regrettably fell back in almost of all of them,” commented Chuni.

Chuni at home with his wife in Kolkata

Today many, in particular some of the football bureaucrats in India, in an effort to hide failures, point fingers at the rise and rise of cricket as a cause for the demise of football. Chuni himself, being an established cricketer, doesn’t agree with that position. He strongly believes the reason for the decline has been largely due to lack of suitable youth development programs and an inability to come out of so-called comfort zones.

However, Chuni Goswami sees some rays of hope, citing the example of the newly introduced Indian Super League where local footballers are getting decent exposure to transnational benchmarks with respect to training and skills improvements, while playing competitively and professionally with some reasonably practiced international players. “Nevertheless, a total comeback may require the whole framework behind football in India to be changed and value-added,” he concludes. Perhaps Prime Minister Modi may be able to progress football in the same way as he envisions moving India forward.