If there is anything good about being close to rock bottom it is that perceptible movement can only be northward. On the face of it, that is how things were with Indian football, circa 2006.
Blighted by the sudden deaths of former skippers VP Sathyan and Sudip Chatterjee and former international Thomas Sebastian, it was a year which ended with India's FIFA ranking being at its lowest ebb (157, only 41 above the last set of countries), the senior national team losing all their six internationals with a 2-24 goal record and the under-23 side managing only one victory — against the Maldives — that too by an 89th minute matchwinner.
Our women's youth team conceded 31 goals in three games of the AFC Championship finals 14 of them against North Korea. Spared the difficulty of qualifying by virtue of being the hosts, the men's youth team prepared by playing the AFC Challenge Cup, the SAF Games and visited Laos but went home early from their own party with only one point.
Not for football did our Olympians or Asian Games gold medallists consider protesting about administrative apathy though that is certainly one of the reasons why India have continued to slip sliding away. Had they done one, it would perhaps have been 20 years too late.
It was also a year which saw the ouster of football's only Dronacharya Syed Nayeemuddin as senior India coach and — surprisingly — a groundswell of interest from some big names like Clemence Westerhof and Brian Kerr to succeed him. A panel comprising former internationals interviewed Kerr and Bob Houghton before deciding on the man who took Malmo to the European Cup final, coached the Chinese national team and in Saudi Arabia.
When Houghton was appointed on May 27, he enthusiastically backed the notion of India making it to the finals of the 2010 World Cup. A little over six months and a struggle for support staff later, the Englishman who lives in Cape Town said forget it, preferring 2014 as a more realistic target.
Houghton sought but never got taller players, pointing out once that the average height of the Indian team in Doha was 173 cms while that of Italy's World Cup winning squad was 185! Anything bleaker than this would mean total eclipse so India can only hope that the future will be less dismal.
Houghton's appointment for one seems to be a major step in the right direction. Soon after taking over, Houghton stressed that one way of boosting a beleaguered team's morale was by stemming the sequence of losses. While it took till December for that too happen the way he got India out of their mentality to desperately defend and try keeping the margin of defeat respectable from his first full international was commendable.
That was when India played Saudi Arabia on a wet August afternoon in an Asian Cup qualifier at Kolkata's Yuba Bharati Krirangan. They lost 0-3 but seemed to enjoy the challenge of playing World Cup finalists. Skipper Bhaichung Bhutia would not have had a barren 2006 had a shot not rebounded off the crosspiece and Player of the Year Surkumar Singh saw an effort crash into the upright. Saudi Arabia goalie Mohammad Khojah was certainly taken by surprise.
When India went to Jeddah for the return game, N.S. Manju actually gave them the lead. True, it lasted only two minutes but at least India were scoring again. The final scoreline was an unflattering 7-1 for Saudi Arabia but two months later when India went on the road again, against Yemen seniors with an under-23 side, they had the hosts on the mat through N P Pradeep's strike.
Pradeep did it again in Doha against Hong Kong but Siu Ki Chan's 92nd minute strike neutralised his effort of three minutes earlier to effectively end India's slim chances of a quarter-final berth. Keeping Asian Games defending champions Iran at bay without skipper Bhutia, who was suspended, till the 78th minute too showed that under Houghton India at least would not surrender meekly.
With time it does not seem like mission impossible for Sandip Nandy, Habibur Rahman Mondal, Manjit Singh, Pradeep, Manju, Debabrata Roy and Gourmangi Singh to get the national team out of its present abyss. Tall and strong Branco Vincent Cardozo was one of the finds of a disastrous AFC Youth Cup and a midfielder worth investing in.
On its part, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) finally managed to get a permanent address in Dwarka, started scouting for PIOs (Players of Indian Origin) and signed a MoU with Deutsche Fussbal Liga which runs the Bundesliga.
India has miles to go before football becomes part of our entertainment lexicon, clubs focus on youth development and people take pride in the sport. The route to international success is just as arduous but maybe, just maybe, some of that could change in 2007.
If that happens, the souls of Balaram Parab, Santosh Nandy, Kajal Mukherjee, S S Narayan, Deryck D'Souza, D Kannan and others who also passed away in 2006 would rest in peace. Reason enough to ring in the new year.