In the past fortnight the country’s once most popular game got just a brief mention in the sports pages of newspapers amidst the excitement and nail-biting finishes and chat shows of cricket. This game has so caught the imagination of the country that even highly sophisticated discourses use the imagery peculiar to cricket, the ‘slog over’, the critical ‘fourth batsman’ and ‘pitch tampering’. The brief mention football got was over the selection of the football body chief Praful Patel, All India Football Federation (AIFF), as a vice-president of the FIFA, the world governing body, the first time an Indian has been chosen for the post. There was also another small item, in the briefs column about the conclusion of the Santosh Trophy for the best state football team. For the record this tournament was held in Ludhiana where the temperature was in the vicinity of 34 degree C. And, for the record, the trophy was lifted by the Services which beat hosts Punjab by a single goal. There was no television coverage of the game and only the All India Radio had a running commentary of some of the matches. Indian football seems to have been struck somewhere in the mid-eighties like a broken record.
A former player, Ishfaq Ahmed who is now a AIFF technical committee member commented, ‘The Santosh Trophy was and remains a prestigious event in the Indian football calendar. But regrettably, over the years, the scheduling of the tournament has left a lot to be desired, but it still occupies a very important space in the football landscape.’
For the hundreds of players who knock on the fringes of the professional game in the country, the Santosh Trophy is their only hope. In this age of two leagues fighting for supremacy, fortunes and futures hanging in the balance, the tournament should have taken more significance than ever. Ironically one of the coaches who oversaw the demise of this popular championship as well as of many of the landmark tournaments like the Durand, and Rovers, was Bob Houghton who was brought to revive the game. This Englishman was so focused on improving the Country's FIFA rating that everything he did was geared towards this one objective. He selected a set of players and organised matches against countries ranked below and chalked out foreign trips all of which did help. He gave the players exposure and gain confidence. But he was in for a surprise when India played Yemen in a friendly match at the Ambedkar stadium and found a packed house. It was then that he realized the popularity of the game in India.
Most other coaches, especially those brought in from abroad, followed more or less the same trajectory. The last coach, Leslie Constantine, of Cypriot-English origin, who earlier had a stint here, did manage to improve the rankings from 143 to the double digit figure of 99 by playing strategic games with just this in view.
But at the AFC championship where they beat Thailand 4-1 to much acclaim, the team lost two successive matches and were eliminated from the qualifying rounds and Constantine promptly resigned. But that was some months back and the search for a successor has been in progress ever since. And there has not been any dearth of seekers for the job, and the 240 applicants for the post included even the Thai coach who was sacked after the loss to India. In one instance an applicant who had been struck at an airport for six hours had his interview conducted over Skype. There was also Erikson who had coached England for many years and was manager of a fourth division team after that. According to an AIFF official the coach’s salary is footed by the federation and the Government and they were looking for a high-profile name. ‘We want someone who understands India and the competition in Asia. That will be our main criteria while preparing the shortlist.’ And that list is impressive including a Serbian who helped Brazil win the Rio World Cup and a set-piece expert from Australia.
The AIFF also has a problem of finding a candidate to suit their rather modest budget of 25,000 dollars a month while most coaches earn much more. Even the sacked Algerian coach received 345,000 euros, that is way above what India has to offer.
Some years ago when the former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee had met the FIFA chief Blatter he mentioned of the Mohun Bagan club of Kolkata and had invited him for the club’s centenary celebrations. So impressed was Blatter by the roaring crowds that filled the 1,20,000- capacity Salt Lake stadium he said that India was ‘ sleeping giant’ that had to be woken up. Thus he allotted the Under-17 championship to India and this was conducted so successfully that this only reaffirmed his resolve. Now there is a new FIFA chief Giovanni Infantino and an Indian in the august body and it would be worth watching if the two can wake up the sleeping beauty.
Praful Patel’s election at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) congress in Kuala Lumpur, has also come at a time when Indian football is in the throes of its biggest crisis in recent times. Clubs in its top flight I-league, are in open conflict with the AIFF and the way it has treated the I-League vis-à-vis the newly created Indian Super League, which is a private competition promoted by a joint venture between Reliance Industries and the broadcast network Star. Their grouse is that Patel and the AIFF did not have to time to grant them even a meeting.
Last month, seven clubs playing for I-League announced that they would not play in the second edition of the Super Cup, the hybrid knockout tournament that the AIFF launched last year to allow all 20 teams of the I-League and ISL to play for one trophy. Those boycotting 2019 Super Cup included this year’s I-League champions.
The AIFF vice-president, Subratta Datta, had said that if Patel becomes a FIFA Council member, the country could benefit in many ways. 'We will get more technical and financial support in the setting up of the Centre of Excellence near Kolkata. We will get support in the development of qualified coaches and in producing better referees,' he gushed.
As the Blatter fall out India hosted FIFA U-17 World Cup (for men) in 2017 and 'we are hosting FIFA U-17 World Cup for women in 2020. If Patel becomes a FIFA Council member, we will get other bigger events.' Datta continued. Patel's election could help the national team in getting more international friendly matches.
In retrospect, it would appear that India was never serious about football the way it was about cricket and the AIFF, formed in 1937, had taken more than a decade to get affiliated with FIFA. India insisted on playing barefoot when other nations were putting their boots on and the game had changed beyond recognition.
A former player and a familiar radio voice Ghouse Mohammad is, however, optimistic. According to him ‘monarchs, prime ministers, warmongers and peacekeepers have all used the radio to their benefit. Sport has moved on, but even today sport on radio is glorious. The lack of a fixed visual is the mind space to fill in the blanks. For an afternoon game of domestic football the radio should be mandated as choice of medium. In this age of rebranding, refurbishing and bringing back the old radio commentary for the Santosh Trophy would do both a favour’.
It is not for nothing that the Prime Minister had wisely chosen this modest medium to have his chat shows on Sundays.