The World Cup can wait; India must aim to be among top 10 in Asia, writes Bhaichung Bhutia
The first Football World Cup I remember was 1986. But intertwined with memories of the hand and feet of Diego Maradona is that of making my way through a mountain trail in the night to a neighbour’s house to watch games because they had the only television in the village.
Now, everyone in my village has a remote and many follow football through 10 months of the European season. That means, what would be murmured in 1986 gets asked a lot more loudly; the frequency rising in the one month that the World Cup runs: when will India be at show that makes humanity put its life on hold?
My answer to that is: we should not even be thinking about it. Surprised that someone who was fortunate to have put on the India shirt and get the captain’s armband say this? Let me explain.
The World Cup is the Mount Everest of international football. And since the elevator to the top of the world hasn’t yet been invented, the only way you can get there is by training your body and mind and having a solid support system. So it is with the World Cup. As a first step, we need to grow the culture of football. It is a massive challenge in a country where cricket is a religion and other sporting disciplines are making deeper footprints but it is the culture of football that keeps football alive in South American and African countries which are not blessed with a wealth of resources.
Yes, almost every World Cup has an African team in a public slanging match with its federation over bonuses and yes, stories of corruption and chaos in the football set-up of South American countries make headlines regularly but if every year, more and more youngsters from these continents make it to the top leagues of Europe it is because football is a way of life there. ‘Football is the reason we have feet’, an African player told documentary filmmaker Hereward Pelling, according to an article by Thilo Thielke in Speigel Online.
So, in every street, neighbourhood and village, we need to get the boys and girls to play football. Twenty-five years ago when i joined East Bengal I would see boys do that in Kolkata — I don’t live there anymore but I am a regular visitor and I don’t see that often enough now. So, do we have enough youngsters playing the sport? My football schools have over 2,000 children in the age-group of six to 17 spread over 20 cities but I don’t think that is enough. One reason for that is also inadequate space.
That brings me to my next point: let’s leverage the increased interest in football and provide more space for it. That would be a big step in strengthening the base of the pyramid. It would also provide the right environment to have strong local tournaments, especially for boys and girls, across India. It is said that there are four steps that help you become a footballer — train, learn, enjoy and compete. We really need to firm up the compete bit from the Under-7 to Under-16 levels. That is also how we get the community involved.
If I have a dream, it is not about the World Cup. It is about having such tournaments competently organised across India every year, 5,000 of them down to every panchayat. This kind of community involvement does exist in the North-East but it is restricted to a few months of the year; we need to have it more often. India’s state and district associations should be involved in such an initiative. I think there is a major disconnect in what they do and helping football grow.
From the time I started, there have been a lot of positives. I played one tournament — the national championships — when I was in the Under-16 and these days, our junior national teams go abroad for practise games. India now has Under-16 and Under-18 leagues and national leagues. It is a start but the leagues need to be a lot more broad- based.
So, what India needs to do is to qualify for the Asian Cup regularly and then aim for the knockout stages there. For a perspective on how difficult that is consider this: it took South Korea five World Cup appearances to get their first win. For now, India should aim to be among the top 10 in Asia. The World Cup can wait.
Bhaichung Bhutia played 104 times for India which is a record. A former India captain, he is also a Padma Shri recipient and has been inducted into the Asian Football Hall of Fame
The views expressed are personal