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It’s not just a free kick to success this time

sports Updated: Oct 22, 2009 00:36 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times

Reviving football can seem as onerous as turning around India's public carrier but Praful Patel is confident about being able to do both.

Appointed president on Tuesday, the civil aviation minister spoke of making football the “most popular sport in the country.” To say that is a tall task would be understating the obvious.

The sport needs investment, big time. In one year as working president since Priyaranjan Dasmunshi took ill, Patel has got Rs 35 crore and while that is commendable, it wouldn't make a dent in the long run unless the All India Football Federation (AIFF) can come up with ways to woo investors independent of the president's political clout.

Patel, though, is sure a fund crunch would be the least of Indian football's problems. “I can assure that in future there will be no dearth of sponsors. Not a single tournament will suffer due to lack of funds,” he said on Tuesday.

And though winning two Nehru Cups and qualifying for the Asian Cup finals after 24 years is a big deal, for the profile of the sport to improve, the profile of the national team will need serious nurturing. The time-tested way of doing that is having a youth development programme that works. To that Bhaichung Bhutia added the senior national team's lack of international exposure.

“We are not playing enough international matches which is affecting the team's progress and ranking,” the India skipper said. “Many young players have left football and settled down with a job. They (players) are important for the development of Indian football.”

“Things have changed a lot from the days I started playing, but more needs to be done. But I am sure, his (Patel) appointment is for the good of Indian football,” Bhutia said.

The yawning gap notwithstanding, football is India's second-most popular sport but one that's still some time away from restoring its pan-Indian connect. At the moment, the I-League doesn't have a club from the Capital and only one each from north and south India. The rest, apart from Lajong FC, are clustered in the west and east.

Lajong FC's breaking into the elite tier though is a huge positive and stoking the Northeast's passion for the sport is something the AIFF must do on a war footing.

The success of the Vision India programme in Manipur has got noticed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and it is imperative that football's nurtured in the only part of India where cricket's not the No. 1 sport.

Shoring up infrastructure is another area crying for attention. Over seven decades after it was set up, the AIFF still doesn't have its own training centre or academy.

Clubs also need to be convinced to build own stadia and for these governments, union and state, must become active partners. The politician in the president could play a useful role there.