Lessons from 0-6 loss to UAE: retool domestic structure, play more such friendlies
What India should not do in the immediate aftermath of the 0-6 defeat to UAE is stop such friendlies. If anything, the loss should get the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to redouble efforts and organise more games. Because there is no practice like match practice. And what better way to improve than being pitted against a side 30 rungs higher in the Fifa rankings. So bring on Syria (76), China (75), Vietnam (93), Oman (81), Haiti (84), Lebanon (92), Jordan (95) and Bahrain (97). Teams that are above India (104) in the Fifa rankings but still some distance from the top 50.
The other thing India should not do is pay heed to calls for removal of the coaching staff and make sweeping changes to the players’ roster. “We are here to gather experience and not more than that,” head coach Igor Stimac had said prior to Monday’s game. That’s what friendlies are for and the Croat walked the talk by making eight changes to the team that drew 1-1 with Oman on March 25.
Among those who played at Dubai’s Zabeel Stadium, left-back Akash Mishra, midfielders Suresh Wangjam, Lalengmawia “Apuia” Ralte and Liston Colaco and central defender Mashoor Shereef were in their second international. Hitesh Sharma was playing his third game in a senior India shirt and Ishan Pandita and Mohammed Yasir their second. So a team thin on experience and playing its second game in over 15 months was being hosted by a one coached by a man who had taken Holland to the 2010 World Cup final, had naturalised players in Sebastian Tagliabue (born Argentinian) and Fabio Lima (born Brazilian) and in Ali Mabkhout, one of Asia’s best strikers with 68 goals in 87 internationals, three of them coming on Monday. What did you expect?
From the off, UAE stamped their authority in midfield and Makhbout’s runs often had India’s backline belatedly trying to bolt the barn door. But for Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the embarrassment would have been greater. But it isn’t as if India have never had the measure of UAE. Before they played the semi-finals of the 2019 Asian Cup, UAE had struggled against India in the group stage needing a late goal in each half to win a game that could have ended 2-2. In 2001, Jules Alberto’s goal helped India beat UAE and in January this year, India’s under-16 team beat UAE 1-0 in an age-specific friendly.
So just as this isn’t the time to judge whether UAE have high-jumped into the league of Japan, South Korea, Iran, Australia and reigning Asian champions Qatar --- the continent’s top teams --- neither is India’s loss reason to drown in dolour.
None of this means that a 6-0 scoreline should be airbrushed. Things are far from right in India’s football and AIFF and the company that runs the top league could use this result to course-correct. The domestic season could be a starting point. Twenty league games --- like it is in the expanded Indian Super League (ISL) --- cannot a season make and this has nothing to do with the pandemic. Teams usually play 34 games in J-League and 38 in K-League; even in UAE they play 26 league games. More games add to cost in an environment where everyone is losing money but if India are to look beyond television commentators’ platitudes during ISL about how far it has come as a football country, it has to be done.
Most states don’t have a strong league, if at all, and that means across the country, teams don’t play enough. How about AIFF disaffiliating units that don’t conduct annual home and away state or city leagues that run for three months? This could mean losing votes but isn’t improving India’s standing in football AIFF’s raison d’etre?
Beyond that, AIFF could club India’s traditional tournaments --- the Durand Cup, IFA Shield, a revived Rovers Cup perhaps -- as season openers. This would give ISL and I-League teams a chance to get ready for the leagues and extend the season, meaning the off-season could be reduced to four months (April-July) instead of six.
The idea of a reserves league too can be looked at. Yes, yes, this too would cost money but teams losing ₹25 crore per ISL season could be convinced to add a bit to their losses for greater good. What this would do is give those on the bench some games. ATK Mohun Bagan’s Sumit Rathi played only 255 minutes this term because he was below Sandesh Jhingan in the pecking order. Now 19, the central defender played 1170 minutes in 2019-20 as ATK won the title. In a crunched season, it was understandable ATK Mohun Bagan wouldn’t want to loan out Rathi but it also meant he hardly got to play. Ergo, a reserve league.
Most importantly, a reserve league would help create a pathway for youth team players. “Har Tendulkar Sachin nahin hota hai (Not every Tendulkar is Sachin),” says a character in the 2021 film “Pagglait” while talking about stereotypes. It is good that a string of young players from Hyderabad FC did well enough in ISL7 to be called by Stimac but not every footballer who has just completed 18 will have the ability that will fast track them into the senior team. Hence, the need to invest in a reserve/development league.
Prior to the start of ISL7, Reliance Youth Foundation announced than nine from its stable have found an ISL club. But a season with no youth competition meant they could only train. Again, a reserve league could have given them a few games. To trim costs, this league can be played in a single venue or split into east and south zones with Mumbai City FC and FC Goa, the two teams from the west, being allotted to either zone. This league too could have a play-off semi-finals and a final.
Given how clubs haemorhhage money, it is a stretch asking them to invest in well run academies but that is a sure way of trying to grow organically. Vietnam, whose league has 14 teams, has done that and it helped them qualify for the 2017 under-20 World Cup.
How a national team performs is always a function of how strong the fundamentals are at home. India have taken some steps such as starting youth leagues and baby leagues but because the structure is still wobbly, consistent improvement for the national team is some time away. The problem is compounded by the Indian season timed differently from most of Asia. Because it is over, Monday was Stimac’s last opportunity to see players in games. That makes long preparatory camps essential for the senior national team and if India are to be competitive in the qualifiers in June, Stimac would need one. All this means India will occasionally surprise Qatar and China and be surprised by Bangladesh, Afghanistan and hurt by UAE. Our true standard possibly is somewhere in between.