India ? A sleeping football giant?
A billion strong nation spread across 16 clubs and 29 states, and yet we cannot put together 11 decent players to play competitive football at the international level.
It's hard to digest and is sure to raise the how and why among sports buff. But tragically, its cold, hard reality.
After years of being vaguely assured by All India Football Federation (AIFF) that we are a 'sleeping football giant' and our potential is exciting, India still lie at 130th rung in latest FIFA rankings, almost embarrassingly below non-descript nations like Azerbaijan (109) and Malta (122).
So what ails India? Why do we scream like crazy while cheering Brazil and Argentina and shut up when someone happens to mention India?
Ace footballer Baichung Bhutia puts it no uncertain terms that the problem lies with the lack of proper grass-roots infrastructure.
"There is no professional set-up in our country. Everything is makeshift. We have so many states in our country but only Manipur and West Bengal have been able to do well. Reason is simple: lack of investment. If you can't pump in money at the domestic level to improve the facilities, don't expect any results at the top," says a peeved Bhutia.
Not surprisingly, AIFF's General Secretary Albert Colaco rejects all criticism of the set-up and says he has his eye on South Africa 2010.
"Our Vision India programme enlists the fact India is a sleeping football giant waiting to be woken up. Even though we don't have a concrete programme at the zonal level. We have got a programme that is limited to our immediate needs and to our immediate financial resources," says Colaco.
Experts, however, argue that it's about time that Indian football was governed by long-term goals rather than chasing short-term benefits.
"The only thing we need immediately is coaches that can spot and groom talent. Of course we can't expect miracles overnight, but at least there should be some movement forward," Bhutia opines.
Genuine criticism notwithstanding, AIFF has on its part, initiated some bold moves. Most conspicuous of them being the plan to persuade players from the expat community to come back to India.
The federation has in fact delegated new coach Bob Houghton with the arduous job of not only providing results, but also approaching the likes of Vikash Dhorasoo and Micheal Chopra in an apparent bid to make football in this country more professional.
Whether the Englishman will be able to butter-up the NRIs is not certain, but what is certain is the fact that Indian football seriously needs fitter, taller and more result-oriented players that can play set-piece as well control the possession.
And if European-trained foreign-influnced players are the answer to the above question, then so be it. Because we desperately need to cheer an Indian XI at the FIFA World Cup!