When Chain Singh Rajvi passed away some decades back in Bikaner the whole town turned up to pay farewell. What was the person like in whose honour the town turns up and what kind of a town must it be? The elder of the three brothers, Magan Singh and Devi Singh, they were part of the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary (RAC) football team that played a kind of European game that was such a contrast to those played in the cities like Kolkata and Mumbai. Their game so impressed the music composer RD Burman that he brought two Russian experts to the RAC tent to compliment them after a Rovers match in Bombay.
Magan Singh who also captained India always wore an old wrist watch like a talisman that was presented to him in Calicut at the Sait Nagjee Tournament by an elderly fan who was brought to the ground in a wheelchair. To have great poets, said American poet Robert Creeley, you need great audiences. So it was distressing that the passing away of Mohammad Zulfiqaruddin last week, in the midst of the Asian Cup matches, went unnoticed except for a brief mention in one newspaper. The Hyderabad Police team coach SA Rahim used to introduce new players every year and thus one had seen Nayeem and Zulfiqar sparkle at the Corporation stadium in Delhi. One used to wonder at the catchment area from where he used to get these wizards? There were, of course clubs like the City College Old Boys Club of Hyderabad and the Kidderpore Club of Calcutta that used to spot talented players and bring them to the notice of the bigger clubs.
The recent elimination of India at the group stage in AFC Asian Cup championships and the resignation of the coach Constantine immediately seem to follow the same predictable trajectory of so near and yet so far. Did India flatter to deceive as it had done in the past?
India began the campaign by a narrow loss to UAE and then defeating Thailand 4-1 and that comprehensive win was described as the first in that tournament in four decades at this level of competition. Then in the last match against Bahrain all that they needed was a draw to enter the knockout stage. They played well and with gusto and conceded a penalty in the injury time, a minute away from the final whistle. At such moments there comes foreboding, a wrench, of the tragic sense of life. The coach made a tear-filled farewell and one could hardly bear to see the hirsute Jhingan sobbing uncontrollably.
There have been the takeaways, all the same, of how the team was so thoroughly professional and fought to the last, that their stamina level has increased tremendously and that tactically they were equal to the best. One also noticed that the impressive stadiums in the UAE were mostly empty for almost all the matches. It must have been heartbreaking to play before such sparse crowds.
Constantine’s exit also brings to the fore the issues that Indian football has been facing all along. Why has it not shown much improvement since the seventies and eighties and why is it that the game is not attracting the crowds that it used to draw earlier? Where have all the great clubs of Bengal and other centres vanished?
Many reasons have been furnished by experts and long-time observers of the game. Did the coming of the television and the increasing popularity of cricket, especially after the Great 1983 World Cup victory, and the introduction of the premier league take away the fans? When you can watch the matches at home why trouble to go to the stadium, especially if there are many barriers and security checks and parking space at these newly designed stadia.
It was also discovered that television had brought to our notice the standards of the game across the world and where we stand, So our home grown heroes seemed insignificant in front those from countries like Uruguay and Peru. So in a sense it had brought to our notice the stuff our heroes are made of.
It is not that those in charge of the federations have not been aware of all these. They brought in experts and recruited coaches, had tie-ups with reputed clubs abroad. When reputed coach Bob Houghton from England was brought in he suggested structural changes and the introduction of the league system as in Japan and China. He also was not in favour of the numerous old tournaments. Thus was introduced the I-League, following the pattern of Japan’s J-League.
However during Houghton’s five-year tenure in the 2010s India did concede a whopping 13 goals in their three group-stage matches of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup with the team barely mustering a threat before crashing out of the competition. That ended his stint and the AIFF reverted to indigenous coaches with Armanda Colaco and Savio Madera. Then the Dutchman Rob Baan was brought in and during these shufflings India did beat Qatar in a friendly but lost to the UAE in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. India won the SAAF championship but failed in the AFC challenge Cup in 2012 losing all the matches. It was time to try another coach and thus was brought in another Dutchman, Wim Kovermans.
The Dutch coaches seem to be particularly unlucky, elsewhere as well with the Advocat and Van Basten and Louis van Gaal being shuffled even in the English Premier League. Under the duo of Baan and Koevermans, Indian football again plunged with its FIFA rankings to 173 after a barren spell which included a dismal performance in the 2013 SAFF Cup as well as the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers.
The dismal campaign in the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea saw Koevermans finally being relieved and Constantine being brought back for a second stint. During his time India did improve its rankings to 97, with carefully selected matches but apart from improving the rankings it has done pretty little.
One recalls Indian captain Sunil Chhetri’s plaintive appeal to the public to come to the ground and cheer the team. After all the players want to get that feedback even if it is sneers. Following that appeal, the Bengaluru crowds did fill the stadium somewhat.
Bhaichung Bhutia, a former captain, was more sympathetic and commended India’s showing at the AFC championships and said such mistakes happen. The team played uniformly well and even though there was no stand-out player they had all trained hard and this showed. According to Bhutia the country should invest in grassroots level development.
It is here that the need to revive tournaments like Durand and Rovers should be emphasised. As also the Santosh Trophy for the best state teams. These are the tournaments that help encourage the young to take interest in the game and bring them to the ground. Institutional teams like the Railways and Airlines and Universities were also once the nurseries of budding talent and it is from Universities like Aligarh and Calicut that some of the finest players had come. The Services was also one such institution and the Durand was held by the Services Sports Control Board with much precision. They had also introduced the Subroto Cup for schools, which was once a popular tournament.
When such things happen there will be faithful fans at the ground, they will come even in a wheelchair to watch their favourites play. Then there would be no need for Sunil Chetri to lament that no one comes to cheer them play for the country.