IOA made a decision which shocked the Indian football fanatics. Few alterable norms decided the fate of Indian football in Asian games 2018.
Not too long ago, a heartfelt plea from a powerhouse performer – the captain of Indian football team, Sunil Chhetri – floored us with words articulating his passion and apprehension.
Evidently, he was troubled by something that should have ideally shaken the collective conscience of the country, albeit with little results.
And we’re so glad that he did. Chhetri was at his honest best when he wore his heart out on the sleeve in the video that captured the attention of the country.
This is nothing but a small plea from me to you. Take out a little time and give me a listen. pic.twitter.com/fcOA3qPH8i
— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) June 2, 2018
On the surface, it was nothing more than a sincere request to reveal some much-needed support for the number 1 sport in India by ‘showing up’ at the stadium and cheering the team as they took on countries like Kenya, Chinese Taipei and New Zealand in the Intercontinental Cup held in Mumbai.
The much-needed wakeup call
As it turned out, this message was the wakeup call needed to rescue us from the clutches of complacency – and reinforce the fact that we’ve been belittling not just our football players – but also thousands of lion-hearted aspiring athletes who don’t mind putting their lives on the line to bring glory to the nation.
The events after his video message went viral was genuinely spellbinding. India played the next three matches (including the finals) in front of packed stadiums with fans chanting their lungs out.
Quite remarkably, India went on to win the tournament at a time when not many gave them a chance. Chhetri’s message finally did what it was supposed to do – strike the right chord with millions of football lovers of India and not just temporary ‘fanatics.’
It seemed as though Indian football would finally garner the support it has been missing all through these years. More than ever before, our win had us believe that we’d be getting to hear some much anticipated good news.
Heartbreak continues – Indian Football in Asian Games
The reality of Indian football, however, isn’t as romantic as it sounds.
Amidst the misguided euphoria of the recently ended FIFA World Cup where we were asked to cheer for a ‘second nation’, a lot of us seem to have ignored the IOA’s decision not to send our Indian football team at the Asian Games 2018.
Unsurprisingly, several million dreams were left shattered. Not because of the depressing news per se – but due to the sheer apathy showed towards the commendable efforts made by AIFF over the last three years. It was an absolute shocker from the IOA, even by its low standards.
IOA wanted to send teams that could be deemed fit for being ‘title contenders’ in this multidisciplinary tournament.
Naturally, this raised more than a few eyebrows as only teams ranked 8 or higher (at the continental level) will qualify for 2018. In contrast, our men’s football team ranked 97th as per the FIFA world rankings.
The million dollar question is this: Did that merit the exclusion of our football team from such a prestigious sporting spectacle?
Nuances of the Ranking System?
If we go by the current ranking method, it certainly puts the selection criteria in a spot. Here’s why.
- The Indian women’s handball team finished 8th out of the nine nations that competed in 2014 Asian Games.
- In Wushu, our medal tally was 11th, with two bronze medals (one each from the men’s and women’s category).
- Not only did the Indian cycling team did not win ANY medal in 2014 Asian games, but they also had a bad outing at the CWG.
- The Indian soft tennis team’s last outing was at the 2010 Asian Games, where they finished a paltry 8th out of 11. India did not even participate in 2014, yet only 13 nations competed with each other.
Quite astonishingly, all the teams above qualified for the 2018 games, but the Indian football teams did not.
This was the reaction:
Isn’t it cringe-worthy to draw untenable similarities between the world’s most popular sports with other sports where only a handful of countries participate?
Do rankings really matter for the Asian Games?
The football squad of the Asian Games comprise of players from the U-23 teams. It just has three members of the senior squad accompanying them.
Although the men’s football team finished a disastrous 26th (out of 29 teams) in the 2014 Asian Games, it would be somewhat premature to judge them based on that ranking. Because no other Indian sport comes close to football regarding how it turned things around over the past few years.
Since the 2014 Asian Games, the Indian men’s football team has achieved great heights. It slipped down to a ranking of 173 in 2015, and the team skyrocketed to the 97th rank within three years.
After remaining undefeated for over a year and winning important tournaments like the International Cup, the Indian team also managed to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup after waiting for eight long years.
With encouraging investments being made to strengthen the grassroots infrastructure, well-equipped stadiums world-class training facilities, and intelligent nurturing of budding talent, a lot has been done to up the ante. Even AIFF’s approach to football is far more professional now more than ever.
Clearly, out football teams could have been insulated from this conservative mindset.
The shocking decision by the IOA at this stage defies logic because they have merely failed to gauge the way forward for the Indian football team. As of now, 11 Indian U-23 players are present in the senior national team.
It implies that participating in the Asian Games would not only have given them the much-needed exposure to better-ranked international teams and their playing styles, but it would also have served as a precursor for other vital tournaments such as SAF, AFC Championships and of course – the U-23 AFC Cup qualifiers.
Treat Them Right
If we go by the IOA’s plan, i.e. to win dozens of medals in the coming Asian Games, we would not be unreasonable to expect the contingent of 524 athletes to bring back at least 300 medals. And, if they don’t, the writing is on the wall – perform or perish!
The question we need to ask is this: Are we to treating our professional athletes kindly?
It brings us to the moot point, that is, an unfair comparison of a game like Football with other events like Sepak takraw is simply not acceptable.
For the longest time, AIFF is affected by the problem of not being able to ramp up the steady workforce in Indian football that could harness the immense potential of our talented players.
To be fair, the results we’re seeing in football are due to the seed sown back in 2007– to discover and nurture talent.
But isn’t that something which is expected out of dedicated efforts?
In fact, isn’t it the norm in all sporting nations whose athletes do them proud?
Clearly, Indian football is not doing anything wrong in wanting exposure and results for the hard work that is being put in.
World Cup 2026
It is a cherished dream for any football-playing nation to play at the FIFA World Cup. The 2026 World Cup to be held in North America, Canada and Mexico in 2026 do have exciting prospects for the Indian contingent.
The tournament is expected to have 48 vacant slots out of which, the Asian federation will be allowed to send in the top 8 teams.
If India were in automatic contention for a place in top 8 squads, they would have had a smooth ride. Since they are not, it’s essential that the players need as much exposure as they can possibly get to know what it takes to compete with the big guns.
And it is the existing group of U-16, U-19 and U-23 players that will be the ideal combination for India to try out if we’re to have a decent chance at making it to the 2026 World Cup.
With an encouraging jump in FIFA World rankings over the past couple of years, AIFF is making the right moves. We can dream to qualify for 2026 FIFA World Cup as long as sporting authorities don’t mess it up.
The IOA’s decision is incoherent at two levels. First, It will hurt our prospects at any major tournament in the foreseeable future. Second, it sends a wrong message that threatens to stifle the sporting culture in the country.
If any sport is to be built from ground zero, the least IOA can do is not to mitigate the steps. Steps that are being taken to improve the quality of our team.
As it turns out, we may have to wait for yet another emotionally charged appeal made by a troubled sporting icon.
Even if it happens, who knows that it will not fall on deaf ears of those in positions of power?