Indian football has seldom climbed to such dizzying heights. Legions of fans — used to the ups and downs in fortunes of another set of ‘men in blue’ — were thrilled to watch Bhaichung Bhutia’s young team whip Tajikistan 4-1 to lift the AFC Challenge Cup. It isn’t everyday that India prevail so completely in a tournament with a score-line like this. Besides the end of a 24-year-long drought to qualify for the 2011 Asia Cup, this win signals the emergence of a confident new Team India. The hat-trick by Sunil Chhetri, the left foot scorcher by a blood-soaked Bhutia, the mesmerising mid-field play by N.P. Pradeep, and Subrata Pal’s crucial saves all testified to this. There was no mistaking either where the newfound confidence of India’s playmakers and strikers come from: coach Bob Houghton has melded this young team so well, teaching the players to think on their feet and play to their strength. It’s a pity the Dronacharya awards are not given to foreigners — Houghton would have been a shoo-in, the way he has given Indian football such a huge leg-up.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF)’s lack of foreign exposure and its constant interference in team selection used to allow coaches only limited opportunity to work with the national team. Coaches were forced to shuttle between the senior and the age-group teams, never really devoting enough time to any. The AIFF seems to have realised its mistakes, and given Houghton a free hand in selecting and training the team. And do the results show! This is a good time for the AIFF to address Indian football’s stagnation.
Unlike in Japan, South Korea and West Asia where it has evolved into a professional sport, arbitrary selection, insufficient international exposure and match-practice, and measly pay have led to Indian football’s decline. And to think that league football was played in Calcutta long before Fifa — the world governing body — even existed. The AIFF has no choice but to market football more efficiently, if the ‘beautiful game’ is to reach greater heights in the country.