Getting lost in the great Indian Football tussle

Indian football fans are going through a predicament. On one side they have a stubborn football federation that has, for the lack of a better word, sold its soul (a.k.a marketing and broadcasting rights) to a private party partnership known as the FSDL (Football Sports Development Ltd), co-owned by Reliance, IMG and Star Sports, and is therefore now a pawn for the big corporates.

On the other side is a movement fast gathering pace against this apparently biased federation and its private owners, headed by I-League teams such as former champions Minerva Punjab, and Manipur’s lifeline NEROCA FC.

What’s so difficult about choosing sides, you might ask? Surely one has to fight the corporates and ensure football belongs to the mass. Problem is that it’s not so rosy on the other side either. FSDL’s new league, the Indian Super League (ISL), paved the way for more opportunities in the sport. The facilities became better, the salaries higher and generally everything got more “professional”.

Add to that the numerous problems associated with the I-League clubs championing the save Indian football campaign. Minerva Punjab, for example, has come in the news for allegedly not paying its footballers and altering their age to participate in tournaments. Not to forget its polarising owner Ranjit Bajaj – a former Roadie who certainly doesn’t know how to mince his words.

The football fans in the country are now caught in a classic Devil vs the Dead Sea conundrum – who do we side with when both seem awfully corrupt?

A brief history of the feud

As far as the mismanagement of the sport goes, there is no specific timeline (forever?) but it is fair to say the recent controversies had its origin on December 22nd evening when I-League teams received an email from the All India Football Federation.

The Hero I-League, the country’s top-flight football league, were recently informed that STAR SPORTS – exclusive broadcasters of the Hero I-League, would broadcast a select 30 matches including the final three last round matches LIVE & EXCLUSIVE on Star Sports 3 for the second half of the league beginning December 29.This would take the number of games of the ongoing 12th edition to be broadcast live to 80 out of a total of 110 games. The games to be broadcast live from December 29, are given in the table below. Four more games are to be added to the schedule at a later date — AIFF

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The email from AIFF to the clubs

The I-League clubs were shocked that their broadcaster had decided to cut short their coverage mid-way through what had promised to be another exciting season. Not so surprisingly, Kolkata clubs were the least affected, while Minerva was the worst hit. The conspiracy theorists had their reasons to suspect revenge. The Punjab club had expressed their displeasure in the Facebook-live type coverage of their match against Chennai City in December. Was this Star Sports not-so-subtly reminding them who owns football in the country?

But the decision couldn’t have simply stemmed out of a Twitter rant. Minerva’s tweets probably acted as a catalyst but this intent was clear – can’t let I-League outperform ISL. You can’t blame Star Sports, can you? They spent millions to kick-start a league. They even got the federation to schedule I-League at odd hours to reduce the eyeballs. Yet, the league kept growing on.

In simpler terms, the contract signed between AIFF and FSDL granted the latter all the rights to pull the plug on the I-League to promote their own product (the ISL).
While it was within the law, the move marked the beginning of a bolder attacking strategy by the FSDL who had until then taken a slightly subtler route to derail I-League as the number one league in the country.

The I-League clubs, especially Minerva, weren’t going to let FSDL and the AIFF have a free run at this blatant, non-inclusive restructuring of Indian football though. On December 28th, they held a press conference in Kolkata where they, along with representatives from Gokulam Kerala FC and Chennai City FC, explained to a set of journalists what FSDL was doing to the country’s football and why everyone needed to act quickly to save the sport.

They even made a cute Noam Chomsky ‘Manufacturing Consent’ rip off to explain what FSDL was doing to the sport.


The I-League clubs even wrote to the AIFF requesting a meeting with football president Praful Patel. But they never got an answer which further showcased how undeterred AIFF was in their bid to make ISL number one. The clubs even suggested a possible merger of the leagues but apparently, even that went unheard. And then the clubs, including Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, decided not to turn up for the Super Cup as a mode of protest. That led to more controversies and then the latest social media reactions where Minerva owner Bajaj said he will be forced to shut down the club because AIFF ensured the Kalinga stadium in Orissa wouldn’t be available for their home AFC matches.

Of course, these stories aren’t one-sided either. AIFF has come openly declared that Minerva is free to find another stadium for their AFC matches. Praful Patel recently said he had communicated to the I-League clubs that he was willing to talk to them in April.
So on one side, there is the AIFF, the FSDL and on the other side, there are certain I-League clubs with a not-so-pleasant history themselves. How do we take sides especially when India is going through a good period with the national team? The men’s team have shown great improvements in the last two years so why the question is a system that’s showing a steady upward rise?

The middlemen

What a lot of Indian football fans don’t understand is that it’s not a two-way battle for the future of Indian football. There is a bunch of influential football clubs and players, none more so than Bengaluru FC having played in the I-league and then jumped to ISL bandwagon, sitting on the fence carefully observing what is going on.

You’d think the ISL clubs would be sided with the FSDL. The AFC Champions League spot still goes to the I-League champion so an end to the league or declaring the ISL as the top league would be a huge advantage from ISL teams.
But things aren’t so black and white. There is the dwindling interest and a missing connect in the Indian Super League.

READ: No Manjappada, no party in Kerala

There are rumours FC Pune City might shut down or relocate to another city with the club struggling to attract an audience. Delhi is contemplating moving to a smaller stadium. ATK continues to be overshadowed by the big Kolkata teams while NorthEast United can’t get anywhere near the support Aizawl or NEROCA gets. I-League means guaranteed support and interest in the game. Something the new clubs want desperately.

So
1) ISL clubs can side with FSDL. Kill I-league, start fresh and hope the support grows exponentially.
2) ISL clubs can bat for some changes and bring the I-League clubs on board which would be definitely mean improved interest.

As it stands, AIFF is angling towards option one, but want the Kolkata clubs on board because they bring a lot of support. The Kolkata giants might take the plunge but what is supposedly stopping them is the exorbitant fee (believed to be around 15 crores) that clubs have to pay FSDL every year.
If the ISL clubs are smart, this is an opportunity to reform their league. What if these clubs, some going through financial difficulties, struggling to break even in what is still a developing market, demand FSDL to reduce the annual fee. Or even better, ask them to take it all away. The ISL isn’t living up to its promises and if the league has to become the top division, it will have to introduce promotion and relegation, again violating the promises to the clubs from FSDL. A restructuring of the league gives all the teams an option at renegotiating their terms. And considering the past five seasons, there will be a lot of teams jumping at the first opportunity. An ideal scenario then will have the I-league and ISL teams pressurizing the FSDL to come up with a better plan for the entire football fraternity.
The idea might sound far-fetched as things stand today but the reality of any business venture is to churn out profits and the only way to do it in the foreseeable future for ISL clubs would be to cut down on the FSDL fee and hope I-League clubs bring more eyeballs into what is slowly becoming a stale league.
As a fan, unfortunately, the situation is like being in the centre of a three-way Mexican standoff between Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef  (that iconic ending scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). All you can do is to watch how things pan out.

An Animal Farm

What is certain at the moment is that football in the country doesn’t seem to be in the right hands. The Federation has continuously let down the sport for years while the FSDL has emerged as a dictator with zero respect to how the small clubs that ensured the game thrived despite the lack of support. The clubs spearheading the protests, despite doing good work, have also been marred with years of age fraud allegations, and other stories such as fraudulent player contracts.
And hence, as a football fan, it is important (more than ever) to support the cause and not necessarily the entity standing up the cause.

Do we want a unified league? Yes.
Do we want more opportunities for footballers and staff? Yes.
Do we want an inclusive football top division that gives a chance for teams like Aizawl or Real Kashmir to compete? Hell yes!

What as fans we should do right now is not to get carried away by any one narrative. All parties can benefit from a better planned, restructured league in the country. We should protest any signs of dictatorship and the blatant misuse of power by the FSDL or AIFF. But we also do not want an Orwellian nightmare of supporting an entity only to realise it was far worse than what we already had. The federation needs some reforms, the teams need better internal management, the system needs to be stricter towards age-old practices and the only way to go about these things might be to get a Lodha Committee-like set up to restructure the entire framework of Indian football.

PS: The opinions expressed are personal and the author does NOT claim to have any inside information. I might be completely wrong in my understanding of things.

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Indian Super League: Kerala Blasters impress in Nelo Vingada debut but still struggle to score

The second half of the Hero Indian Super League started with a bunch of positives for two-time finalists Kerala Blasters, with new coach Nelo Vingada tweaking the system to offer more attacking freedom to his players. Unfortunately for the home side, the freedom only translated into chances and not goals, as they played out an entertaining 1-1 draw against ATK.

Here are three talking points from the first match of the second half of the fifth season of Indian Super League

1) Old habits die hard

Vingada has begun his stint at Kerala Blasters with the same structure he used while he was the manager of NorthEast United in 2016 – a 4-1-4-1 formation with Nikola Krcmarevic playing the shielding role in the midfield. Luckily for the coach, the team he inherited were used to playing a similar system, which meant very little tinkering was required.

The difference was that in David James’ side, the onus was on the front-two, often played by Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic, to score the goals while the wingers whipped in crosses. Against ATK, Vingada’s Kerala had just one target man in Poplatnik, while Stojanovic occupied a deeper position in the midfield. Blasters’ plan was to play to play the ball into Poplatnik’s feet, who would then look for runners from the midfield with a first-time pass. Midfielders took turns to support their primary striker, depending largely on the zone of play. Seiminlen Doungel (Len) was a constant threat cutting in from the left wing, while young Sahal Abdul Samad had another outstanding game, orchestrating everything from the midfield. Prasanth, playing in the right wing, worked tirelessly as Vingada’s side dominated most parts of the match. The defence looked well-balanced too and had the game in control throughout the match.

While the system looked promising and chances were created in galore, Kerala were haunted by the same ghost from the past when it came to actually converting those chances. Len, Prasanth and Stojanovic missed sitters while Poplatnik and Sahal also made goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya skip heart beats with their attempts. On another day, the score could have been 4-1 in favour of the home team. But we’ve been saying this about Kerala a lot, right?

The new coach is confident about ending the goal-scoring woes though Kerala, who have just scored 13 goals in as many matches, have very little support in the bench who are proven goal-scorers.

2) Building for the future

With the January transfer window open, Kerala Blasters were expected to add some players to their squad after a disastrous first half of the ISL campaign. But the opposite has happened, with experienced players moving away from the club, while youngsters were signed as a replacement. Vingada had even confirmed to journalists that the decision to loan Holicharan Narzary wasn’t his but the management’s. The January transfer plan actually goes in sync with what they did in the summer too, by signing the likes of 2017 Under-17 World Cup stars Dheeraj Singh and Mohammad Rakip. So what is Kerala thinking?

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A place in the playoffs is realistically unachievable for the Kerala team, so they are instead focusing on building a strong Indian core in the team. The young Indian players, especially Sahal and Len, have shown how game-time in top-level football can be a catalyst in the growth of footballers. Rakip and Dheeraj have been playing a lot too, which means the ISL franchise is prepared to wait a season or two, to unlock the potential in the Indian players in their ranks. A lot of teams promote young players to sell them in the future but Blasters seem to be cultivating stars to make their own future brighter. It is a bold strategy but Floyd Pinto and the Indian Arrows have shown in the recent past in the I-League that consistency and belief can go a long way in getting the best out of young players.

With CK Vineeth and Narzary gone, youngsters Boaringdao Bodo, Nongdamba Naorem, Jithin MS and co, will all be hopeful of playing for the senior team in the near future, especially with Vingada confirming in the post-match press conference that it is very unlikely his club will be making any more signings in the window.

3) Where is the Manjappada?

A new manager and a new year aren’t, unfortunately, good enough reasons for the Blasters faithful to make a return to their home. The home support against ATK, although loud and appreciative of the team’s good work on the field, was still underwhelming. Only 4582 fans turned up for the match in a 45000+ capacity stadium.

blasters

The Manjappada (Yellow Army) are arguably the largest football fan-base in the country but their stand-off with the Kerala management, largely due to the team’s decisions to not sign ‘quality players’ and play a ‘boring brand of football’, has affected the stadium attendances badly.

Hopefully, Vingada’s appointment and the positive football against ATK will bring the crowd back. Football certainly needs Kerala!

Interview: Simon Sundararaj — India’s forgotten football star from the 1960 Olympics

“They play the 4-3-3 (formation) a lot these days,” says Simon Sundararaj, pointing to a large TV placed opposite to the sofa where he is sitting, as I made my way into his house in Thanjavur. A quick shake of the hands, a brief introduction from my side, and we jump back into football. He had been watching a replug of Real Madrid’s La Liga match against Leganes. But his ‘they’ had a larger implication, beyond Real Madrid.

WATCH (click to go to YouTube)

“In my time, we played the 4-2-4, a formation that was made popular by the great Brazilian and Hungary teams in the 1950s. We played it in 1960 Olympic Games too,” he explains after I casually ask him what formation he preferred in his playing and coaching days. We had been talking about football in our two phone conversations prior to the meeting. He was pleasantly surprised by the interest I showed in his playing style.

Football formation, to put it bluntly, is the pursuit of distributing players evenly across a field that is designed to accommodate 22 humans, and still leave the perfect amount of space to be exploited. Add an extra player in both teams, the pitch is crowded. Subtract one, there is too much space. Over the years, coaches have tinkered with formations to hit the right balance. But there has never been one answer. Teams dominate for a certain period until a new coach and a new side under him/her finds a flaw in the existing system, develops a new style, and then set the trend for the subsequent years.

For Sundararaj, the star for the Indian national football team in the 1960 Summer Olympics and coach for Kerala state team in 1973, when they first won the Santosh Trophy, the pursuit was no different.

“The (4-2-4) formation, something I used a lot in my career as a manager, was simple,” explains Sundararaj. “It allowed the same number of players in both the halves, unlike strategies you see today, which have more focus on defence. It was the best formation for attacking football. Even though most teams were playing the 4-2-4, especially after Brazil’s success in 1958 with Pele, Vava, Garrincha and Zagallo, I think, playing in front, it was in the 1970 Olympics, the formation really caught my eye.”

A tryst with destiny

India played the 1960 Olympics with the same formation, with Sundararaj occupying the same position (inside forward) that Pele went on to immortalise. In the Games, the last time India ever qualified for the international tournament, the country produced resolute displays including a 1-1 draw against France and a 2-1 loss against a Hungary side in their prime, which made Sir Stanley Rous, then in charge of Olympic football, call India the best team from Asia.

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The 1960 Rome Olympics football team

Sundararaj announced himself internationally in the tournament, scoring a 30-yard screamer against Peru, which remains India’s last goal in an international tournament of that stature.

But by 1970, the year Brazil won their third World Cup and perfected the 4-2-4, sometimes even shifting to an attacking 3-2-5, Sundararaj had given up on a promising playing career, stunted by a cartilage injury in 1961 that prevented him from playing for India in the 1962 Asian Games (a tournament India went on to win), to focus more on coaching.

“It was a great time to be coaching. It was around the time total football was emerging in Holland. Brazil was playing outstanding, attacking football, and in India, we had some really good footballers. So I wasn’t unhappy,” he remembers. He doesn’t want to brood over his shortened playing career, dismissing all suggestions of a lack of support, by saying “that’s how things were back then”.

Sundararaj hadn’t really thought about a career in coaching. In the late 60s, when he was working for the Southern Railways, he was given a directive to attend coaching classes at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Punjab. Sundararaj merely followed the orders and shifted base to Patiala where he secured his coaching certificates. “I went to Punjab at a time when Major Dhyan Chand was coaching at the NIS,” he fondly remembers.

The golden years of Kerala football

Even though Sundararaj is the first Tamil Nadu footballer to feature in the Indian national football team (Krishnamurthy from Thanjavur had also played for India but represented Bengal in the nationals after shifting his base to join East Bengal), it is in Kerala, the neighbouring state, where he spent most of his professional career. After securing his coaching license at the NIS, Sundararaj quit his job in the Railways, to join as a ‘wing coach’ for NIS in Thiruvananthapuram. After a brief stint at the state capital, which according to the coach, was marred with politics, he shifted to Kochi, where he joined Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) as a football team coach.

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Photo Courtesy: Victor Manjila

“It was a time when Kerala was peaking in football. All the public sector companies had excellent football teams and there were competitions across the state. Premier Tyres, FACT, Port Trust in Ernakulam district itself. Then there was Kerala Police in Thiruvananthapuram, We are talking about great teams here. Premier Tyres, for example, had India’s top two goalkeepers, Sethumadhavan and Victor Manjila playing for them at the same time,” recollects Sundararaj.

It was during his early days at FACT that Sundararaj was offered the opportunity to coach to the Kerala football team. The state had been given an opportunity to host its fifth Santosh trophy, with Ernakulam set to be the venue.

“Senior players had a big say in Kerala football. They dictated things and in some ways, prevented younger footballers. For the first time in Kerala’s history, I held an open trial and identified the Santosh trophy team from around 150 players who had turned up for the camps. A lot of these senior players missed out as we selected younger players”, he recollects.

Kerala went on to clinch the Santosh trophy which proved to be an inspiration for a generation of quality footballers who emerged from the state.

“It was a season that changed our outlook towards football,” remembered Victor Manjila, former Indian Goalkeeper and part of Kerala’s 1973 Santosh Trophy winning team, when I met him later in Thrissur. “Simon Sir taught us that discipline was key in a footballer’s life. (Late) NJ Jose, who was Kerala’s standout performer in the previous Santosh Trophy, turned up a week late for the coaching camp. Simon Sir sent him back. Even though was a talented player, it didn’t matter for Simon Sir because for him no individual was bigger than the team.”

Sundararaj continued coaching for FACT and retired from the company in 1997, and after briefly coaching FC Kochin, India’s first professional football club, he moved back to Thanjavur.

Another forgotten legend

“I sold my ancestral house. We were getting too old to maintain it. A flat means it is convenient,” he says, pointing outside the window. It was drizzling — the season’s first rain according to Sundararaj. He goes on to explain how Thanjavur is dependent on rain, as the economy was largely agriculture-dependent, and how a lot of food, including that for neighbouring states like Kerala, was produced in the region.

“Made in Thanjavur, consumed in Kerala,” he says.

The line resonates.

“I chose to play football because it was fun. My uncle played for the Tanjore United sports club and I just picked up the habit from here. I was lucky enough to reach the Indian national team but my objective was always to have fun,” he says, also stressing on how Thanjavur was a hub for sporting activities, especially football and hockey, back then.

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Tanjore United football club

His answer when I ask him his favourite football coach of all time is somewhat in sync with this pursuit of fun in football than the ideology he followed as a manager — where the system was more important than the method. “What Tele Santana did with his Brazilian teams will forever be how I would want football to be played,” he remarks.

Many remember Brazil’s defeat against Italy in the 1982 World Cup as the day “football died”. Where system defeated freedom. Santana’s Selecao, needing just a draw against Italy, opted for a fearless, attacking approach and paid the ultimate price by getting knocked out of the tournament. A contrast to what Sunderaraj achieved with Kerala in the 1973 Santosh Trophy final — where a system overpowered a strong Railways team.

READ: Italy 3-2 Brazil, 1982: the day naivety, not football itself, died (The Guardian)

But in that contradiction, perhaps, lay the beauty of Sunderaraj’s footballing mind — a purist who could appreciate it all.

He gave everything for the game. But the game, he reminds, didn’t give him or other footballers from his generation a lot in return. “We retire and they forget. We only live in the public imagination only till we are playing. A lot of my national team colleagues had a tough time after they retired. Zulfiqar (Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin), who played in the 1956 Games, told in an interview that he had no money to get his children married off. Yousuf Khan, who played in the 1960 Rome Olympics with me, needed help from friends to buy medicines as he battled Parkinson’s. I only learned about this after he passed away,” he remembers.

The struggles players faced post-retirement prevented them from passing on the footballing knowledge to subsequent generations, which according to Sundararaj, is the major reason why India is struggling in football, while France, the team they held to a 1-1 draw in 1960, is winning the World Cup.

“I know the government is providing support to a lot of athletes, like giving pension to veteran players. But as an Olympian, I cannot go and approach the All India Association or the State Association and ask for some pension. My dignity won’t allow me to do that. Instead of them coming here and asking whether I need some help, why should I go there,” he says.

Sundararaj, who will turn 80 in November, still harbours hope of seeing India in top tournaments. “Milkha Singh, in an interview, said he hopes to see an Indian in the final of an Olympics track event before he dies. Similarly, I hope to see Indian football team in the Olympics or the World Cup before I die,” says Sundararaj.

Incidentally, Milkha Singh’s history-making run happened in the same Games Sundararaj scripted history for Indian football — a fair indication of how much the respective sports have progressed in around 60 years.

The article was written in October 2018. Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin, mentioned in the piece, passed away in January this year.

Indian Media’s Love For Sensationalism Is Being Unfair To The Country’s Football Revolution

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Exactly a year ago, Indian media houses were greeted with a positive press release from the country’s football federation. The mail conveyed that the Indian Under-17 team had beaten its Italian counterpart during the team’s exposure trip in Europe and scripted a “new chapter in Indian football”. The news, which was published by all major organisations and accentuated by celebrity ‘influencers’, sent the world of the internet into a frenzy.

 

With the Under-17 World Cup, India’s first FIFA tournament, only a few months away, this was the perfect news for the multitude of fans across the country. Suddenly the country started believing its team could compete with the very best in the world. Chest-thumping and mindless debates devoured the internet as the optimism levels hit the stratosphere.

Strangely though, as some nosy journalists later found out, the Italian football team website had no information about the match. A quick search confirmed that Italian starting line-up didn’t feature any known U-17 player from their past matches either. So who did the Indian football team defeat? The Indian Football Federation said they “didn’t know about it” and had assumed it was the national side because they wore the Italian jerseys. A Public Relations nightmare, as an AIFF staff would later admit (anonymously), putting unwanted pressure on a young Indian side while also giving a false sense of optimism to the fans.

For the Intercontinental Cup, that concluded on June 10th, the journalists were better equipped. They pointed out that the teams visiting India, including the lower ranked Chinese Taipei, were far from their strongest eleven. Yet, as is the strange pattern with news these days, these conversations got submerged in a wave of positive news about the Indian team. It started with Captain Sunil Chhetri’s plea — a video in which he calls for more support at the stadium after being disappointed with the audience turn-out in India’s match against Chinese Taipei. The video went viral with the likes of cricket captain Virat Kohli requesting fans to cloud the stadium in support of the Blue Tigers. The fans did arrive in hoards and India did win the tournament beating Kenya in the finals but Chhetri’s video had a far wider, and more importantly different, impact than he would have hoped for.

There was a shift in the narrative as media organisations felt the need to portray the Indian football team greater than what it actually is. Media outlets, responsible for sending out unbiased news, became fanboys of the Indian football movement. Suddenly there were statistics equating Chhetri to Lionel Messi, and the Indian team’s win record being compared to that of Germany’s.

To be fair Chhetri, who has been a fantastic servant for the Indian football team, tried to quell most of these praises by pointing out there is still a lot of work to be done for India and the need to play top Asian sides more often, but that never made it to the headlines.

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So what is the harm if sensationalism prevailed over sense in our coverage of the event? Especially when it was for a good cause – in this case garnering support for the Indian football team.

By portraying we are a better side than what the rank 97 would signify we risk a massive fallout when the going gets tough for the side. Instilling a false sense of hope does not do justice to a sport that is still in its nascent stages in the country. It happened with the Under-17 team – the interest in the team disappeared soon after the team failed to impress in the group stages of the World Cup. And it could well happen at the AFC Asian Cup where India will face strong opposition. It is imperative that the right details of our team is highlighted so that the ever-growing Indian football fans won’t be disappointed if the team struggles.

This is not to say we should be pessimistic. The Intercontinental Cup had its positives – the team showed great cohesion, dominated in the central midfield (an area of weakness), and was miserly defence. The success also put pressure on the authorities to send the U-23 team to the Asian Games, where the side will get to play against top sides. Not to forget AIFF’s strategy to improve India’s ranking by inviting Kenya and New Zealand, who were unlikely to send their main eleven.

It is unfair to criticise the team as well. They played their socks off and we have to acknowledge they are a developing side. It will take years of effort to have a system in place and this is exactly what the media should be focusing on. There is no quick fix to quality football. It took a decade of effort for Germany to rebuild a team to win the world cup. The current golden generation of Belgium football is also the fruit of a long-term plan. And these are nations who already had a footballing culture. In India, the effort would be larger and these international matches are small steps in the right directions. Indian Super League is slowly starting to find its identity, with teams starting to prefer clever homegrown signings over international marquee targets.

In an era where loud, brazen news is in demand, it is important that the reports and opinions on Indian football stick to a narrative that is honest to what is happening to the sport.

Unwind: FC Pune City’s Baljit Sahni on conquering fear and being a versatile player on the pitch

“The Punjabi players are not to be seen anywhere. The young players, who play for colleges and universities, have nothing lined up for the future. It’s all down to the players to go to clubs and give trials on their own,” quips FC Pune forward Baljit Sahni in his strong Punjabi slang, which has earned him the nickname Paaji among his teammates.

He is lamenting the lack of football clubs from Punjab. In the past few years, the number of football clubs from the state has reduced. Minerva Punjab FC, operating from Ludhiana, is the only football club from Punjab in India’s top two football divisions today.

Sahni himself was a product of JCT, which during its 16-year-long existence in India’s top division football, provided a platform for young players from the state to rise.

“After JCT got relegated from the I-League, no one has put the required effort to bring up another team (from Punjab). Even when they tried, financial problems prevented them from achieving success,” he says.

Sahni is a fighter. On the pitch he is a tiger, constantly pressing the opposition defenders, sometimes a tad too much – his habit of getting sent off is a testimony to his eagerness. Off the pitch too, the man from Mahilpur (Hoshiarpur) is never ready to give up.

In 2009, Sahni and his JCT teammate Sunil Kumar were seriously injured in a bike accident in Goa. Sahni fractured his wrist, and also injured his shin, and required 25 stitches during treatment.

“When the accident happened there was a match the next day, and I had also earned a call-up for the national side,” remembers Sahni. “I was affected by the fact that I missed the one-month-long national football team camp due to my injury. But I recovered quite fast. I left the hospital in a week and I played a match in a month’s time,” he adds.

“When the ball was coming in the air, I was a little anxious to head the ball. There were stitches in my head and I was worried how I will able to head the ball. But slowly, through practice, I overcame that fear,” says Sahni. He scored for his team in the comeback match.

After starting his professional career in JCT, Sahni went on to represent East Bengal for five years, after which he made a switch to Indian Super League (ISL) side Atletico de Kolkata. He went out on loan to DSK Shivajians during the I-League season and was later picked up by Chennaiyin FC. The forward last played for Mumbai FC before making the short relocation to FC Pune City. While Sahni has always preferred to play the role of an attacking winger, he has had to don the role of a centre-forward on multiple occasions. But the man has no complaints.

“It is all up to the coach. He has to make the team and he has to see who all he has available and what positions they can play (in). I believe I can play in two-three positions,” admits Sahni.

The man just wants to play football.

Watch the video interview by clicking here

Unwind: Vishal Kaith’s journey from the hills of Himachal Pradesh to Indian national team

Pune: One of the pillars behind FC Pune City’s good Indian Super League 2017-18 campaign (9W, 3D, 6L in the league) was their goalkeeper Vishal Kaith. The 21-year-old keeper, who has represented the Indian national team in various age groups, peaked in form as the season progressed and produced some crucial saves to keep the team from Pune in the battle for a play-off spot. The shot-stopper secured seven clean-sheets and made 45 saves in his 17 appearances for FC Pune City this season.

vishalkaith

But the story of Vishal Kaith would have been drastically different had it not been for a few individuals in his life. “I didn’t know a lot about goalkeeping when I went to the Sports Hostel,” says Kaith, who was more fond of playing cricket and boxing in his younger days in Himachal Pradesh. “I didn’t even know I will be a goalkeeper when I went there. It was the last year for the Hostel’s goalkeeper because he was about to graduate. There was no keeper, so the coach there, Vikram Panda, he saw my height and asked me to keep for a few days. So I started keeping and I think he saw something in me and made me a goalkeeper,” he adds.

At 21, Kaith has progressed remarkably from the ‘tall boy who could keep’ to becoming the first choice goalkeeper for an ISL side, and is slowly becoming a stable member of coach Stephen Constantine’s Indian football team. Though he might still be far away from replacing Gurpreet Singh as the last man of defence, the future is bright for the lanky footballer from the hills.

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Arata Izumi wants NEROCA FC to ‘enjoy the moment’

In early January, when players were securing lucrative deals with top I-League clubs, Japanese-born Indian midfielder Arata Izumi made a somewhat bewildering announcement – that he will be joining I-League second division new-comers, NEROCA FC.

Neroca players celebrate their win against Lonestar

The decision was not for the lack of suitors. After all, Izumi, a box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, was in the prime of his career. “It will be a great challenge for me because the club is like a dream (for everyone from the state of Manipur). They (the club) are trying to make things happen for the people the club represents. I like how they think about football. I like their attachment with the people,” he said, in a conversation with Sportstar then.

On Monday, NEROCA FC (short for North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Association) clinched the I-League second division crown, beating Lonestar Kashmir FC 4-1 in Srinagar to become the first team from Manipur to reach the top flight of Indian football. For Izumi, it is a reward for his faith in a system that is fuelled by the football loving people of the North Eastern state.

“Individually for me, I’m happy that I could complete my job. But more than what I did or achieved, I’m really happy for the people of Manipur, the NEROCA players, coaching staff and the management. Their passion led us to this success, so I am really happy,” said Izumi in a telephonic conversation from New Delhi, where the team will be halting for the day before going to Imphal on Wednesday.

With talks going on about a possible football league makeover, it still remains a doubt whether the current I-League will be the country’s top division next season. But Izumi does not want to ponder about it, at least not now. “The management must be thinking about it but no one knows the future of Indian football at this moment. So we should just enjoy the moment. This is a fifty year old club (NEROCA was founded in 1965) and hence this a historic moment for the club and Manipur. The fact that the club won the title will give a lot of hope and motivation to the young people from the state,” he added.

In a season where Indian football managers have shown their ability to compete with the very best, Manipur-born Gift Raikhan’s success with NEROCA FC is the perfect sequel to Khalid Jamil’s success with Aizawl FC. Izumi, who knew Raikhan from their Pune FC days, says the coach’s man-management skills were crucial in the team’s title run.

“He (Raikhan) is learning of course. But if you ask (Antonio) Habas, he will also say he is learning. In fact, if someone says I know everything, I will say the coach is not good. The best part about him (Raikhan) is that he doesn’t have that ego. He is always talking with the players and we try to do everything together. His man-management skills are very good and is testimony to the quality of coaches these days,” said Izumi, who has also played under Jamil for Mumbai FC.

Izumi has been securing his coaching licences simultaneously, and will be applying for an ‘A’ license in the coming months. But the player wants to keep hitting the field and said his future at NEROCA will depend on many factors.

“I can’t really talk about my coaching future now but I want to keep playing for some more years. So it really depends on who takes me (laughs). That is how it is in professional football,” concluded the midfielder.

FIFA U-17 World Cup: Minerva boys earn national team call-up

Norton

An impressive outing against the India Under-17 team has earned six Minerva Punjab FC academy players a call-up for the U-17 national side and a chance to impress newly-appointed coach Luis Norton de Martos ahead of the much awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will be held in India between October 6-28.

Minerva, the AIFF U-16 Youth League champion, had played two matches against the national U-17 and U-15 sides in Goa, which the team won 1-0 and 2-0 respectively.

The performances by the Minerva team had impressed coach Norton, who took over the coaching duties from Nicolai Adam, and the management has now brought in Anwar Ali (defender), Amarjit Mishra (winger), Mohammed Shahjahan (midfielder), Ashem Henba (midfielder), Nongdamba Naorem (winger) and Jackson Singh (midfielder) to train with the U-17 team.

“Four of our players were selected from Minerva after we won the U-15 League. We are proud to be contributing 10 players to the U-17 team apart from the six who play for the U-15 team. A football club’s legacy isn’t about how many titles it has won. I’ve always maintained that the national team should be the ultimate aim. I want to proudly say one day that 10 players in the Indian side which qualified for the World Cup are from my team,” said an elated Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab FC.

While the decision is bound to have pleased the Minerva management, it casts further doubts on how prepared the Indian team is ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. After a decent showing in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship, the Indian colts lost its momentum, and performed poorly in the 2016 U-17 BRICS Football Cup and the Granatkin Cup.

The success of the nation-wide scouting program, which was conducted to identify the U-17 players, is also being questioned after the Indian team’s loss against Minerva.

Former Indian captain Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the chief scouts along with Abhishek Yadav (former player) and sacked coach Nicolai Adam, was recently removed from the AIFF technical committee, adding fuel to rumours that he had shown favouritism while picking the players.

Interestingly, both Bhutia and Yadav have their own football academies but the ‘conflict of interests’ was not seen as a hindrance to the project by the AIFF management.

Yuta Kinowaki: Finding home away from home

yuta kino

Shillong Lajong has punched above its weight, so far, in the current I-League season. With seven rounds still to be played, the team, currently fifth in the points table, is level on points with defending champion Bengaluru FC.

One of the stars for the Shillong side has been its Japanese recruit, Yuta Kinowaki. The blonde-haired Asian has marshalled the midfield to great effect for the Thangboi Singto-coached team, while thwarting opposition attacks with ease.

“I enjoy playing in the central midfield. Though, I can play anywhere across the back-line, or as an attacking midfielder, my preferred position is in central midfield, where I can dictate things,” said Kinowaki in a tete-a-tete with Sportstar.

Yuta joined Lajong in the winter window, the latest stop in a nomadic football career that has seen the Japanese ply his trade at European leagues in Poland and Latvia.

“I was 22 when I moved to Poland to play for Energetyk Gryfino. A Japanese agent arranged for a trial in Poland and I passed it. But unfortunately due to some ‘paper issues’ I couldn’t play half of the season. The same agent then got me to Latvia where I played the entire season for BFC Daugavpils,” said the midfielder, who went on to play for Japanese club Kyto Shiko SC after an year in Latvia, before securing a move to Lajong’s North-East rival, Aizawl.

Like any modern day footballer, Yuta was lured by the promise of playing in the big Europeans leagues. “Yes, the idea was I will move to a club in Europe and one of the big leagues will find me,” said Kinowaki, who believes that he has settled well in India and now wants to build a career similar to his countryman and Mohun Bagan midfielder Katsumi Yusa.

“I was sceptical about coming to the country because I knew that would reduce my chances of playing in Europe,” said the 26-year-old. “But I’m happy and focused now. I want to improve as a footballer and win titles here. Katsumi Yusa is a role model for Asian players in the league. I want to be like him and stay for the long run.”

But with the future of the I-League still hanging in the balance, Yuta is keeping all his options alive. “We are footballers and ultimately we have to go where opportunity takes us. Like I said, I want to be here. But we don’t know what will happen to the I-League. So I have no idea what the future holds.”

The Japanese, though, has been impressed by the passion shown by Indians for football and feels the country is in the cusp of a football revolution. “It’s my second full season here and I can already feel a difference in quality. All India needs to do is maintain this effort. I have already heard of good academies popping up in places like Dimapur (Nagaland). Recently, I learned that the Mizoram government is sending a bunch of kids to Germany to learn from experts. These are all good signs,” said Yuta.

Shillong Lajong follows a strict policy of promoting home-grown, young players in the team, as highlighted by its recent match against Chennai City FC, when the coach fielded eight under-22 players in the starting line-up. Yuta, though young himself, has had to don the role of the experienced player in the side, something that he has done to great effect till date. The midfielder believes pressure is part of a professional footballer’s life, but prefers to enjoy the game and not think too much about it. “Every time you go out in the field there is the pressure of winning. I don’t think ‘I am the senior, the team depends on me’ when I go out to play. I just concentrate and work hard for the side.”

Lajong’s season so far has impressed Yuta, but the Japanese wants his team to remain focused till it achieves its target. “Our aim is to secure a top four slot. That was our aim when we started the season as well – to finish in a position better than what Lajong has achieved so far in its history of the I-League (best being sixth). So we need to continue to do the good work,” concluded Yuta.

IWL — A much-needed leap for women’s football

 

When All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the launch of the first-ever Indian Women’s League to develop women’s football in the country, it was greeted with a sigh of relief along with the excitement.

After years of false promises and missing out on talented footballers due to lack of opportunities, the Indian football federation has finally put together a league for the eves, albeit a small, two-week tournament with all the matches played at the Dr.Ambedkar stadium in Delhi.

Indian women, despite occupying a respectable 54th place in the FIFA rankings and outperforming their male counterparts for years, had no regular league such as the I-League and Indian Super League for men, until now.

Their playing time was often limited to National championships and SAFF competitions, after which the onus was on the player to maintain the fitness required for playing at the top level. This forced many stars, including former AIFF player of the year (2013) Oinam Bembem Devi, who is the captain of Eastern Sporting Union in the IWL, to move out of the country in search of opportunities. Bembem, in 2014, joined New Radiant SC in Maldives — a country ranked lower than India — to become the first Indian woman to play for a professional foreign club. National team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan shifted to London in 2015 and still plays for West Ham United.

It is not like there is a shortage of examples within the country to show how focused efforts for the women’s game can reap great benefits. Manipur has set the benchmark with women’s football by conducting intra-state competitions on a regular basis. The state has also won 17 Indian Women’s football Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1991-92.

Odisha is another state that has seen rapid progress in women’s football. The state football association, in partnership with SAI (Sports Authority of India), have been promoting the game and as result Odisha has become formidable force in the women’s game. The Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar and Barbati stadium in Cuttack are breeding grounds for women footballers in the country and have produced top-class players such as the 2016 AIFF women’s player of the year Sasmita Malik.

A SMALL YET SIGNIFICANT STEP

One can argue that the logic behind AIFF and IMG-Reliance’s decision to start the league is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of the sport. After all, a two-week long league does not significantly increase the number of playing days for the women footballers. The organisers have failed to find a TV broadcaster for the event which will hamper its reach and appeal. No prize money has been announced for the winners either. Which all points to one big question — what was the need to start such a disorganised league in a hurry?

Yet, after repeated failed attempts to attract sponsors to kick-start a women’s league, the decision by AIFF to go ahead with the event, shows a real intention to improve the game. Perhaps the reason sponsors stayed away, despite the success of Indian Super League, was the lack of clarity in AIFF’s roadmap for the women’s game.

Now that AIFF has shown its intent, sponsorship and corporate interest will hopefully follow — something which will be essential to sustain the league in the long run.

A professional contract will also reduce, if not remove, players’ financial dependability on other jobs to sustain their lives. National team captain Ngangom Bala Devi is a police constable with the Manipur Police department and commitment such as these surely hinder a player’s growth.

The league, which will only feature Indian players, will also be a great platform for young footballers to make a mark at the top level. The average age of the Indian team that won the 2016 SAFF women’s championship was less than 25, which means the best is yet to come for most footballers in the team.

ONE STRIDE AT A TIME

During the inauguration ceremony for IWL, AIFF president said, “Our women’s team is ranked 54 in the world which is higher than the men’s ranking of 129 which means that for the upcoming FIFA women’s World Cup in 2019, if we put in the right effort our women’s team will have an outside chance of qualifying for the World Cup before the men.”

While the World Cup should be the holy grail for the Indian team, it is important that the women’s side takes it one step at a time and first aim to establish itself as a top-five team in Asia.  Indian women have dominated the South Asian region in the past years and is unbeaten in its last 19 matches but is currently ranked 12th in AFC (Asian Football Confederation).

[Ref: http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/women/afc.html]

Five out of 24 slots in the 2015 FIFA women’s world cup went to AFC teams but to reach the top-five India must significantly improve its performances at the AFC Women’s  Asian Cup. Indian women haven’t qualified for the tournament since 2003 and the last time it went past the group stages was in 1983.

Japan, Australia, China and Jordan have been given automatic qualificiation for the 2018 edition after being the top three sides in the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and the host respectively. India’s quest for a place in the other four slots will begin in April this year when it plays South Korea and Uzbekistan. Hong Kong and group-stage host North Korea are the other two teams in India’s pool.

It is AIFF’s responsibility to ensure the momentum gained by the IWL is utilised to go beyond the ‘big fish in a small pond’ mentality and ensure the women play more friendlies and tournaments against tougher ranked opposition.

The teams: FC Alakhpura (Haryana), Jeppiaar Institute of Technology FC (Puducherry), Aizawl FC (Mizoram), FC Pune City (Maharashtra), Rising Student Club (Odisha), Eastern Sporting Union (Manipur).