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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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.

Maurizio Sarri, named as new Chelsea manager, is owner Roman Abramovich’s latest gamble in quest for ‘perfect football’

On a summer day in 2003, the fax machine at Gianfranco Zola’s office buzzed with an unexpected message. It was a request, more like an ‘offer you can’t refuse’, from Russian billionaire and Chelsea football club’s new owner Roman Abramovich. He desired to retain Zola, who had left Chelsea in the summer for his hometown club Cagliari and was willing to pay £3 million as wages to the Italian, and another £1 million to Cagliari to buy out the contract.

 

As rumours go, the diminutive attacker, who was a key figure in Chelsea’s Champions League berth-clinching 2002-03 campaign, had played a huge role in convincing Abramovich to buy the debt-ridden London club. He wanted Zola in his Chelsea, and the team’s football to be modelled around the attacking guile that the Italian brought to the football field.

Zola rejected the offer to stay true to his promise to Cagliari but the fax message was a precursor to how Abramovich would function — he gets what he wants. Soon an army of international players was gathered at the Stamford Bridge. A roaring lion with a sceptre replaced the old laid-back lion on Chelsea’s crest. The intention was clear — to win but also win by playing attractive football.

Unfortunately for Abramovich, the king he chose to run his empire (after giving a season to Claudio Ranieri), Jose Mourinho, came from a different school of thought, where winning was all that mattered. Mourinho, in his first stint at Chelsea, instilled his DNA into the Chelsea team, making them winners, although not by playing the football Abramovich craved for. The marriage didn’t last long with Mourinho leaving the club in his third season with the Blues. A herd of managers (10 including two stints by Guus Hiddink) occupied the helm at Chelsea, won trophies aplenty, but alas, failed to deliver the football their Russian owner desired. Antonio Conte became the latest manager to be sacked by Chelsea on Friday.

Appointing Maurizio Sarri, the banker who turned into a football coach to help Empoli and Napoli scale new heights in the Italian leagues, is Abramovich’s latest attempt at bringing attractive football to Stamford Bridge. The bespectacled tactician, known for his smoking habits on the pitch, doesn’t come with the same reputation as Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, but his work at Napoli has earned him praise within the footballing world. The manager is notoriously famous for his work ethic, as is obvious from his desire to live at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, and encourages his team to play attacking football, often called ‘Sarri-ball’ or the vertical tiki-taka. “If I saw my team defending and counter-attacking after 30 minutes, I would get up and return to the bank because I would not be having fun,” the Italian said during the 2015-16 campaign with Napoli. The Sarri-ball is his solution the problem – a possession-based style with plenty of short, quick passes but with an emphasis on moving up the pitch quickly.

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

In simpler terms, it is the best of Spanish football and the best of German football integrated into one formation. Sarri’s Napoli liked to have the ball, but the objective was always to systematically move it forward unlike the Barcelona side who mastered the traditional tiki-taka, which involved horizontal passes that stretched the opposition team and made holes for key passes. Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who implemented tiki-taka to perfection at Barcelona, was so impressed after facing Sarri’s Napoli in the Champions League in the 2017-18 season that he described the team as the best side he has faced in his career as a manager. While Sarri might not have titles to show for his time at Napoli and Empoli, he did beat title-winning Max Allegri to the Panchina d’Oro (award to given the best coach in Italian football) in the 2015-16 season.

Empoli’s Emperor

Sarri’s big break as a coach came in 2012, aged 53. He was hired by Empoli, then struggling in the lower ends of Serie B. A relegation survival would have been enough for Sarri to secure his job but the former banker ensured that the club reach the promotion play-offs in his first season.

In his second season, Empoli secured a promotion to top-division and in his third, the Florence-based team managed a respectable 15th position in Serie A with a shoe-string budget. It was not just the position that was impressive. Sarri’s Empoli were strong in defence – conceding the second least number of goals – and played a football that involved keeping possession of the ball.

His success at Empoli might have gone unnoticed by the media, but the football world had taken note of the late-blooming manager. According to various reports, Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan coach, asked then AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to sign Sarri as their manager. But Berlusconi hesitated and Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis came swooping in for the Sarri. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sarri introduced the famous Sarri-ball system and gave Juventus a tough battle in Serie A.

On a collision course

Things will not be easy for Sarri at Chelsea though. Unlike Napoli or Empoli, where players hadn’t tasted a lot of success, Chelsea are a club with a winning DNA. It remains to be seen if the players at the London club will accept Sarri’s demands of an attractive, fast-paced football, especially having a played a counter-attacking, defence-first football for most of their time in London.

Sarri won’t be the first attractive-football-playing manager their Russian billionaire manager has appointed. Remember what happened to Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas? Chelsea never bought into their ideology and eventually led to the sacking of the managers.

Chelsea are a club built on a tough defence. They have always been tough to crack but didn’t often play the most flamboyant of football. In fact, judging by the club’s history, it wouldn’t be Chelsea if they didn’t resist Sarri’s policies. To ensure a smooth functioning environment for Sarri, Chelsea will have to support him in the transfer market.

At Napoli, he played he deployed a 4-3-3, with two centre-backs who were comfortable with the ball, had great distribution and were athletic. While Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger fit the description, Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s future will be in doubt. Chelsea have been linked with Juventus’ Daniele Rugani, a young centre-back whom Sarri managed at Empoli, while returning Kurt Zouma also offers a fresh option.

Similarly, his midfield trio included a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box player and a playmaker. In N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, he has strong and athletic midfielders, but Cesc Fabregas might struggle in the advanced role. But with Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to be given a major role in Chelsea, and Jorginho all but confirmed, the midfield looks ready to play Sarri-ball.

Zola’s return

If rumours are true, Sarri will also be assisted by Zola. The former Chelsea player has a decent resume as a coach, having managed West Ham United, Watford and Birmingham City in England and is a favourite amongst Chelsea fans. He will also be able to act as a mediator between the players and the manager, thereby easing the transition. Zola’s agent has publicly expressed his client’s desire to work with “idol” Sarri and his appointment would mark the perfect end to a 15-year-long cycle that started with Abramovich sending a fax message asking Zola to join his empire. The question is whether the end of the cycle will produce the football that Abramovich craves for at Chelsea.

One thing is for sure, with Sarri’s appointment, the Premier League will become richer with another coach who has a distinct, positive approach to football. Imagine Sarri-ball, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Klopp’s gegen-pressing, Unai Emery and Mourinho’s counter-attacks, and some good old English long-ball game in the Premier League next season.

The tides are changing – How organisations are coming together to promote sailing in India

Puducherry: “Surely this can’t be the right location,” I thought, as my cab took a sharp left into a small fishing harbour in the town of Puducherry. There were medium-sized fishing boats docked from one end to the other, all with Indian flags tied on top — a sharp reminder to how close we were to international waters. Fishermen were mending their nets, oblivious to the gravity of the event that had brought me to their haven.

This article first appeared in Firstpost

I was at the former French colony to attend the inaugural Pondicherry Sailing Regatta — an Indo-French bilateral sailing event, hosted by Bonjour India.

I was expecting something different though. Yachts, sailing boats, well-dressed people… I was told sailing was the water sports equivalent of golf — a sport the majority in a country like India can’t afford. The wooden house, at the western end of the dock, which acts as the office for the Pondicherry Sailing Association (PSA) was anything but opulent. Around the wooden house were participants, repairing their boats, before they docked it for the day. Nothing about the PSA office was like what I had envisioned a sailing club to be.

There began the deconstruction of my popular culture-inspired perception of sailing.

A battle with oneself

“The sport is about balance. The balance of the mind and body. It is not just a race to beat others. It is about discovering your way,” says Mael Garnier, who was part of the French sailing team in Puducherry for the Regatta. It wasn’t until later in the day when I was taken into the sea, on a fishing boat, to witness the sailing boats in action, that I understood what Garnier was talking about.

Sailors spend hours in the sea battling the constantly changing nature. According to Colonel SK Kanwar, a jury member for the Regatta, a good sailor is someone who can understand the nature of the water currents or the wind direction faster than his/her competitors. While a good understanding of the nature is a prerequisite, a sailor should also be at peace with his/her surroundings, considering the time spent alone in the sea.

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Listen: Colonel Kanwar explains the rules of Pondicherry Regatta

“There are two things that can happen — either you are ultra-competitive and you forget to pay attention to the nature. Or you are at ease; it is easy for that to happen when you are alone in a boat in the water, and you let the nature take you away from the destination. Sailing is a game of balance,” says Ivan Scolan, another member of the French sailing team in India.

The route map for the Puducherry Regatta

The route map for the Puducherry Regatta

The races are also designed to test sailors’ ability to navigate through nature’s obstacles. Often starting lines for the races are set opposite to the direction of the wind. The sailor has to rely on his/her understanding of the winds and the tides to navigate around the circuit.

“When the wind is in the opposite direction, sailors will try to create an angle with the wind and then navigate to the next check-point. What angle or what route they opt for will eventually have a say on the time. One needs to constantly make adjustments to the sail to come out on top,” explains Colonel Kanwar.

A sport, surprisingly, for all

“You can’t say sailing is cheap. But it is not expensive either,” explains Felix Pruvot, a former Olympian with the French national team, and coach of the French team taking part at the Puducherry Regatta. In France, according to Pruvot, small clubs ensure that people from all backgrounds have an opportunity to sail. “It is a part of our culture, so investing in sailing doesn’t look like we have wasted money,” adds Pruvot.

Watch: French sailing coach Felix Pruvot speaks on India’s potential as a sailing hub.

While it may be true in France, and other European regions, India is far from accepting sailing as a part of its culture. While sailing has always existed in certain parts — Mumbai, Chennai and Visakhapatnam have a history of sailing — it has never truly been a recognised sport or a leisure time activity in the country, partly due to the expensive nature of the sport. A beginner-level sailing boat costs between ₹1 and ₹2 lakh in India.

Surprisingly, though, India has taken part in sailing competitions six times at the Summer Olympics. This is largely due to the army and navy funded sports schools throughout the country. Some of the best sailing schools in the country are funded by the two. States like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have also started investing in the sport — National Sailing School, Bhopal (founded in 2006) is arguably the country’s best academy and has been producing world class athletes in the last few years.

According to Anil Sharma, teacher at NSS Bhopal and coach to India’s top sailor Harshita Tomar, India is yet to discover true stars in sailing. “In Bhopal, we have summer coaching camps to identify potential sailors. But we don’t have access to the sea there. All our sailing classes are on the lake. Imagine if we can coach people who are actually used to the sea, who are familiar with the tides,” he points out.

Janaki Balachander, professional sailor and a trainer at the PSA, agrees. She was part of team from PSA that conducted a training class, an initiative by the tourism ministry of Tamil Nadu, for 55 kids from the local fishing community in 2017. “You should have seen how quickly the kids picked up. It took me way more time to learn sailing. It was like they were born to sail,” she says.

An ocean of opportunity

Contrary to popular beliefs, not all sailing competitions are conducted in the sea. Large lakes or inland water bodies also make challenging circuits for sailors due to the constantly shifting wind currents. “In the sea, the wind patterns are more predictable. It’s usually towards or away from the land. In lakes, that is not the case. There are constant changes and you need to be really prepared. But major sailing competitions are often in the sea so one needs to practice in coastal regions,” explains Pruvot.

India, fortunately, has a perfect mix both inland water bodies and the seas. But while the geography is conducive, a lot remains to be done to improve the perception of the sport. “Very few people know about sailing. Even when I say to my friends or relatives about sailing, everyone thinks it is swimming. Nobody understands what sailing is,” says Harshita Tomar, India’s top-rated sailor and the winner of the Laser 4.7 category at the Regatta.

Watch: Harshita Tomar speaks on what India needs to do improve our athletes.

Tomar, who will be representing India in the upcoming Asian Games, is hopeful that more people will take up the sport in the future. “In Madhya Pradesh, we get a lot of support from the state government. They take care of our fitness, nutrition etc. Hopefully we will see more states do the same,” she adds.

With 10 medals at stake, sailing is an integral part of the Summer Olympics and is a sport that needs to be taken more seriously in India. The country needs more schools like NSS Bhopal to pop up and that to be followed up by good government interventions such as providing subsidies for sailing boats. But with the likes of PSA actively looking for ways to reform the sport, it is only a matter of time that India sets anchor with the very best in the world of sailing.

(The writer was in Puducherry on invitation from Bonjour India)

Mayweather vs McGregor: Boxing is in trouble; can the much-hyped bout boost the sport’s fortunes?

In Biblical terms, Conor McGregor taking on Floyd Mayweather is David vs Goliath. But there is a more recent, apt example to draw parallels with — Michael Phelps vs Great White Shark. The latter, arguably the greatest aquatic killing machine. The former, a swimming champion — who has like most humans, spent the majority of his life on land. The event was publicised as the greatest Man vs Wild event ever. For all you could fathom from the teasers, this was going to be a race to the finish line between the champions in the chilly Atlantic waters.

Thankfully, nothing like that happened and Phelps only had to swim in the Atlantic while a simulated shark was added to the final footage by Discovery’s graphics team. But the hype had ensured Discovery averaged more than five million total viewers, making it the No. 1 basic cable network on primetime Sunday night. The key words being ‘hype’ and ‘numbers’ here.

Much like sharks, boxing is under threat and needs saving. While the Mayweathers and the Pacquiaos might still be amongst the highest paid athletes, boxing has been feeling the heat with dwindling viewership, and fans taking to other combat sports, like Mixed Martial Arts’ Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The boxing Federation did try to brush away all claims saying the number was distorted due to pirate websites streaming the matches, but the truth is, boxing has been on a downward trajectory for a while now.

(FILES) This file photo taken on July 11, 2017 shows Floyd Mayweather Jr. (L)as he faces off for the first time with UFC fighter Conor McGregor during a press call at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor will be allowed to wear lighter gloves when they clash in their Las Vegas superfight this month, it was confirmed on August 16, 2017. The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) approved a request from both fighters to switch from 10-ounce (283-gram) to eight ounce gloves, despite concerns raised by safety experts. Lighter gloves carry less padding over the knuckles, potentially making for a more explosive spectacle. / AFP PHOTO / Gene Blevins

This file photo taken on 11 July 2017 shows Floyd Mayweather Jr (L)as he faces off for the first time with UFC fighter Conor McGregor during a press call at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. AFP PHOTO

Australian betting website Btwin reported that while 4.6 million tuned in to watch Manny Pacquiao take on Floyd Mayweather (2015), only one other bout crossed the million views mark till late 2016. In the same time frame, five UFC bouts crossed the 1 million viewers mark. Boxing did salvage some pride with Pacquiao v Horn averaging 3.1 million and Keith Thurman v Danny Garcia (which was free on TV) hitting 3.7 million. But to put things to perspective, Lennox Lewis v Mike Tyson fetched a 7.5 million subscription audience while the Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier bout, dubbed ‘The Fight Of The Century’, was watched by 27.3 million in the US alone.

So why is the viewership falling? The strongest claim, something the boxing federation perhaps seems to believe, is that the fight has gone out of boxing. People want punches, blood, contact and characters. While Mayweather might be a big talker outside the ring, he is a seasoned fighter best known for dancing away from the punches than delivering them. Manny Pacquiao is an Asian and his foray into politics coupled with his constant homophobic slurs meant there was little to milk out of him.

The lack of characters meant the focus became on the sport itself and how the fights were fought. While it is natural for the sport to evolve — just as the blood-spitting defenders of the past have been replaced by elegant playmaking defenders in modern football — boxing lost its so-called ‘bloody’ appeal in the process. A glimpse through top boxing blogs in the last decade would see umpteen calls for boxing to change its ‘sissy’ stance and encourage more action. People wanted to see a fight, a knock-out, and an uproar. Not just a loud build up with little aggression in the actual fight. And boxing, struggling to find its modern-day equivalent of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard or Rocky Marciano, had to oblige.

It tried to address the issue by making two bizarre announcements in the summer of 2016: 1) Helmets became no longer compulsory in amateur boxing. 2) Even professional boxers could take part in the Rio Olympics.

The decisions were essentially boxing announcing ‘let us bring back the good old blood’.

While the timing of it meant not a lot of pro boxers could take part in Olympics, this was a clear indicator of what boxing’s policy will be for the future. A policy that is guaranteed to win in 2017 — polarising, borderline populist, but by-and-large problematic. Boxing needed to consolidate its blood loving, trash-talk-loving audience who were shifting their allegiance to UFC. And what better way to do it than beat the mixed martial arts champion, a trash-talking, testosterone oozing beast, who has been winning the heart of combat sports lovers.

So after initial refusals from Mayweather’s side, the idea of a bout started picking up speed with traditional boxing investors flooding in to support. Suddenly it wasn’t just McGregor and UFC trying to take a big bite into the large cash pie that is professional boxing. This was the big spenders of boxing trying to ensure their sport remains on top. Overly hype the event and then beat McGregor. Bring the UFC audience to boxing, beat the sport, and stake claim to being the greatest combat sport.

Mayweather was more than happy to oblige. He will probably not have faced a less seasoned opponent all his life. This is, after all, McGregor’s debut bout. What an easy way to overtake Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Not to forget make a lot of money in the process.

Honestly, what are the odds of this even being close? Yes, a lot of us did think Phelps would race a shark and a lot of people would tune in to watch Mayweather v McGregor under the impression that the battle will be close. But you do not win 49 professional bouts for nothing. Add to that the fact that McGregor, a master at using his entire body to pin the opponent, will not have his lower body to rely on to knock out the opponent. McGregor is going to get killed.

The build-up tour has been in tune with the overall narrative. Both the boxers have resorted to gimmicks that will give the masculinity-demanding fans a turn on. Both called each other a ‘pussy’ (multiple times); ‘bi**h’ was used like a conjunction, and there was McGregor’s ‘monkey’ chant. Sexism, racism… you name it they gave it. And the fans apparently love it.

If early predictions are to be believed, the bout could generate the biggest pay-per-view event of all time, with Mayweather set to make around 100 million dollars from the battle.

Sadly, the best thing boxing has to offer in 2017 will be a battle between a seasoned boxer looking for one last fat pay cheque and a Mixed Martial Arts champion who has never boxed. Maybe boxing should take a deep breath and introspect.

While entertainment, packaging, and promotion are essential components for modern day sports to survive, nothing can beat quality inside the ring. But it could really backfire as well? The Mayweather v McGregor battle has the potential to be dull. Mayweather is known for his defensive approach, and he would be happy to dodge punches and end it at that.

What if the bout becomes a dull match with no knockouts? That will hardly do the world of boxing any good, will it? Their champion struggling to take down MMA’s McGregor.

Ali or Leonard did not become popular for what they did outside the ring. And hence, what boxing really needs is to focus on identifying stars at an early stage and make the sport a sport again. Pacquiao and Mayweather are at the end of their careers and boxing really has no one to take over the baton from them.

How things have changed since French theorist Roland Barthes wrote about boxing in his ‘Mythologies’: In his famous essay on amateur wrestling, Barthes says, “The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future.”

While this might have been true in the 1950s, boxing has been reduced to a hyped up spectacle with results getting more and more predictable. Something the philosopher believed amateur wrestling was.

Will the Mayweather v McGregor bout bring about a change in fortunes for boxing? Will it help eat into UFC’s audience? Or is boxing dying?

On the calm shores, a surfing revolution brews

At the first glance, all is calm at the Sasihithlu beach in Western Mangaluru. A local band is singing their rendition of the Pink Floyd classic ‘Wish you were here’, as the crowd, divided into music lovers and food enthusiasts, go about doing their things, oblivious to the gravity of the event that brought them to together-the Indian Open of Surfing 2017.

While the organisers call it ‘baby steps for the future’, there is optimism within the camp that the event will springboard India’s entry into the elite leagues. “I am hoping to find a sponsor to ensure I get the support, technically and financially, to improve my surfing,” says India’s youngest national surfing champion Aneesha Nayak, who like most others in the tournament, is hoping to secure sponsorship deals, while also winning the rights to represent the nation in World Championships.

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The second edition of the Indian Open of Surfing has attracted a host of sponsors, with Karnataka government contributing almost Rs 60 lakh, but most lifestyle brands and sporting goods manufacturers are still shying away from sponsoring athletes due to their lack of ‘marketability’.

“The surfers, barring the elite few, haven’t found individual sponsors yet,” said Ram Mohan Paranjpe, Vice President of the Sporting Federation of India. “But surfing presents an opportunity that most other sports don’t. The surfers like to make a statement both in and out of the water. The athletes have an appeal, a fearlessness about them, a charisma… something brands like to associate with. All they need is some exposure,” adds Ram, who is also a Go-Pro sponsored surfing photographer.

More than a sport

For a sport that is relatively new-popular oral accounts suggest Jack Hebner a.k.a the Surfing Swami introduced it in the Indian coasts in early 2000s-surfing and its off-shoot Stand Up Paddle (SUP) event, have seen a meteoric rise in popularity and tournaments today fetch more than 100 participants, mostly from the South Indian coast line of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

But a surfing festival is beyond sports for a lot of people involved. The fest is a gathering of people who come to celebrate freedom in all forms. The Indian Open venue is a vibrant space, swarmed by mural artists, skateboarders, slack-liners and ‘Indi’ musicians, and these components have become as much a part of the fest’s attraction as the surfers are.

Samar Farooqui on the slackline.

Though Ram believes they are just an attraction to increase the foot-fall of the event, his mentor, the Surfing Swami, sees more.

“If you look at the origin of these games, they have roots in surfing. Back in my day, we did not have skateboarding or snowboarding but I used to ski. And I can tell you the techniques used were very similar,” says Swami.

Surfing is perhaps one of the few sports where the competition against is oneself and how well you can manoeuvre your body to the nature’s demands. “When you are in the water, nothing matters. You want to be alone, focused on riding the right wave. It is very much an individual sport. So in the evenings we have a bit of fun, listen to music and bond over,” says Janis, a surfer from Golden Beach Australia, currently helping his surfing friends set up a school in Tamil Nadu.

And slackliner Samar Farooqui, who travelled from Mumbai to take part in the festival, agrees with the surfers. “Essentially, all these sports are about balancing your body and mind. When you are on the board it is about adjusting your body to ride the wave. Similarly, on the line, we balance our body weight,” points out Farooqui, who also believes ‘non mainstream’ sports such as surfing or skateboarding, need to co-exist in a country like India to attract the audience.

Breaking hierarchies

While surfing is still far away from reaching the popularity levels of cricket or football, the sport has, in its small tenure, aided in shattering stereotypes and breaching class hierarchies.

“When I started, nobody in my family or neighbourhood wanted me to surf,” says multiple-time national SUP champion Tanvi Jagadish. “How could a girl be in shorts? How could a girl afford to be dark-skinned? I had to hide my surfing for a long time from my parents but today I’ve inspired many to pick up the sport,” adds the 17-year-old, with a beaming smile.

Janis, in his time in India setting up a surf school, has seen many celebrities and well-to-do ‘city folks’ hit the beach to learn surfing from the fisherfolks who have already mastered the art. “That is the best part of nature. On the wave, nobody cares if you are rich or poor. It’s just you and the wave,” he said, while acknowledging that the relationship was symbiotic, with the local lads now understanding the importance of education after meeting the celebrities.

While the socio-economic status of the nation might prevent millions from taking up what is still an expensive sport, according to Swami, India undoubtedly has the potential to produce ‘around thousand world class surfers’. “I’ve lived in Bali (Indonesia) and the majority of the population there are Indian immigrants from the yesteryear. If you see them surf, you will understand that it’s in the Indian genes to be successful in the water. I agree a lot of people in this country won’t be able to afford a board or time, but we are definitely capable of having some top talent,” says the surfing hermit, whose association with the country goes back to 1976 when he first travelled to India in the late Hippie era.

A breakthrough year

The 2017 edition of the Indian Open comes at a time when India has started making huge inroads in the world of surfing. In November 2016, Tanvi Jagadish and Sekar Patchai took part in the International Surfing Association’s SUP and Paddle board events. Tanvi, just 17 years old, also won the Bronze medal at the West Marine Carolina Club Stand Up Paddle Board race. Upcoming surfers like Aneesha Nayak and Sinchana Gowda have shown enough to suggest that the future of surfing in India is in great hands.

Surfing as a business enterprise has also seen drastic improvements with the surfing schools such as the Mangalore-based Mantra Surf Club, launching their own apparel brands. Mantra’s Thunder Monkey inspired the vibrant monkeys of Uttar Pradesh who sound like a thunder according to Surfing Swami, who aims to compete with international brands such as Quicksilver by offering similar quality clothing at affordable rates.

According to the officials of the Surfing Federation of India (SFI), the entry of new investors in the surfing scene and the improved support from state governments could help India host a World Championship as soon as in 2018.

The inflow of money will also help the federation send the upcoming surfers on exposure trips, which according Tanvi, will be necessary if Indians are hoping to make it to the big league. “It was very cold when I went to the USA. And I was not used to wearing so much protective suit. I struggled with my paddling,” said the SUP champion on her trip to USA in April.

In Maldives and Andamans, India has accessible and affordable locations to train their athletes and the SFI is already looking into these options to enhance the already impressive athletes. With Surfing being included in the 2020 Olympics and SUP to very likely feature in the 2024 Games, now is the time for India to sow the seeds for a fruitful tomorrow.

Simon’s sermon

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Bullish on the turf, near-eccentric with his podcasts and eloquent in his columns, Australian hockey star Simon Orchard isn’t exactly the fast car-chasing, hairstyle-changing, stereotypical modern day athlete. Not that he really cares for conformity. “What is normal?” Orchard asked recently in a >hard-hitting article he wrote for an Australian publication The Roar, while highlighting the need to embrace diversity in a sporting fraternity marred by homophobia.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST GOT PUBLISHED IN SPORTSTAR MAGAZINE

Orchard, a multiple medal winner with the Australian national hockey team, including gold at the Champions Trophy (2009 and 2012), the World Cup (2010 and 2014) and the Commonwealth Games (2010 and 2014), is a champion off the field too, vocal as he is on mental health and other social issues in a world where such topics still remain a taboo.

Orchard is in India playing for Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the 2017 Hockey India League (HIL). In a chat with Sportstar, the ever-lively Kookaburra star talked of his battle against anxiety and the need for professional athletes to have alternate career plans among others.

Excerpts:

Question: How does it feel to be back in India?

Answer: India is always a very nice place to come to. I enjoy playing in the HIL, and I love not only my team-mates but also the Indian people. They are always very welcoming and it’s great to be back here.

Jaypee Punjab Warriors’ first match this season did not go quite well — a 10-4 defeat to Dabang Mumbai. What do you think went wrong in the match?

Obviously it was a little disappointing. We had spent a lot of time discussing where we can improve. We had played some practice matches together, but there are very few teams of the quality of Mumbai. It was the first match of the tournament and there was a lot of pressure on the players, especially the young Indians who have come after a World Cup victory and would be pushing for a place in the senior team. There’s a lot to play for, and the competition is so close this season. A lot of teams have improved and if you are not at your best you could end up being beaten 10-4 or 10-0, as UP Wizards defeated Kalinga Lancers.

The 10-4 scoreline looks like something out of a badminton match. What is your take on the HIL rule of counting a field goal as two goals? Is it making the game more attractive?

I think it’s a great innovation by the Hockey India League. I personally feel that field goals are much more important than the penalty corner goals, and I know a couple of drag-flickers will disagree with me, but I like the rule change. At the end of the day, if it leads to bigger scorelines and more excitement for the people who follow hockey, then that’s great. It (HIL) has opened up recently, but at the start of the tournament there were some low-scoring matches. I like to see more attacking games and a shoot-out than a 1-0 victory.

Would you consider 2016 as a disappointment for the Australian national team, considering you were one of the favourites to win the gold at the Rio Olympics? Or is too early to press the panic button?

I think, at the Olympics — which a lot of people are not aware of — teams (Argentina and Belgium) which were ranked sixth and seventh in the world (Argentina is No. 2 and Belgium No. 5 today) actually played for the gold medal. In a lot of sports around the world, you would be hard-pressed to find teams ranked sixth and seventh playing in gold medal matches. It goes to show that the strength of international hockey is probably at its peak with Argentina and Belgium becoming superpowers, and India dangerously close to being a competitive unit.

We are of course disappointed (about missing out on a medal at the Olympics). We just had too many players who didn’t perform when it was needed. There’s a new hockey coach now. So in the next 12-24 months leading to the World Cup in India, there might be some changes in the Australian team.

The Indian team won the 2016 Junior World Cup, and there is a feeling that the current crop of Indian players is the best we have had in the last decade. What is the general word about India in the international circuit?

It’s scary how much talent, how much muscle, skill, flair and technical ability the Indian players have. Just to watch Indian players trap and dribble the ball is so exciting. I think it’s in the Indian culture to dribble. It’s called the ‘Indian dribble’ for a reason. The junior coach said that the current crop of Indian players, especially the juniors, is stronger than others in the world. There are some really good coaches involved in the Indian system for the last 3-4 years. To have someone like Roelant Oltmans, who has been here more than most international coaches, will bring consistency to the senior Indian team.

It’s a big jump from the junior team to the senior level. Barring Harmanpreet (Singh), hardly anyone from the junior team has been consistently playing international hockey for the senior side, and it will be important for players like Armaan Qureshi and Varun Kumar to work hard.

What brings foreign players to HIL? Is it just money, because Florian Fuchs recently said he was using the HIL money to pay his tuition fees? How different is HIL in comparison with say a hockey league in Europe?

If you are talking about money and how it compares (with Europe), then it’s phenomenal. I think in Europe you would be lucky to get maybe USD 30,000 for six months, while here some players like Florian (Fuchs) are getting almost USD 100,000 for six weeks. So it is beneficial to a lot of young hockey players who don’t probably get a lot of funding in their home country, and I guess it is one reason why they come to India.

Money aside, I love the experience. As I said in the beginning, I love the people and I always have a smile on my face when I’m in India. I love the culture. I love the fact that you can talk to a Muslim one day, a Sikh the next day or a Hindu another day. They all combine to make this really flamboyant country. Every day you get out in the street in India, you see something new — sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, sometimes just astonishing, but there are always different things to see.

In 2015, you took some time out from hockey to address anxiety-induced issues. It was a very brave move, especially at a time when things were heating up with the Rio Olympics round the corner. When did you know you had to take a break and how did that period help you?

Thank you, firstly. I used to get quite upset and my team-mates also suggested that I take some time out from the game. It was very important for the preparation for the Olympics. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I really enjoyed the time-out and it gave me a mental break, which helped me make it to the Olympics. I don’t know if I would have made it otherwise. And it was probably the fairest thing not only for me but for my team-mates as well, as I couldn’t continue to show up for training and be totally committed. We were working so hard, we trained every day, we were in it together and I just felt I was letting people down as well as myself by not being in the right frame of mind.

It (the break) did a lot of good to other people as well. The message got delivered to plenty of people out there and it was inspiring, I guess. A lot of people contacted me and shared stories, shared information, confided in me… It (mental health issue) is something not talked about; something that’s kept very much behind closed doors.

If you had just taken a break, many of us wouldn’t have known it was due to anxiety. It is only >when you blogged about it that the rest of the world got to know about it. How important was it for you to write on it?

It wasn’t 100% necessary, I guess. But putting it on a page helped people access it. There are a lot of people out there who are maybe struggling with different issues and it sort of gave them something to identify with.

How was it coming back? A discussion on mental health, especially in sports, is seen almost like a taboo. Was it seen by your peers and others as a sign of weakness?

If you can go through anxiety and come out stronger, then there are not too many things people can say. At the end of the day, I had the confidence that my team-mates would understand and accept it. Not only accept it, but also invite it. People who don’t, I don’t have any time for them. Yes, there are people who view it as a sign of weakness or frown upon it, but as far as I’m concerned, those people don’t matter.

Sports people have a lot of benefits, a lot of things going right for them. But it can happen to anyone. Mental health doesn’t discriminate, I guess. It doesn’t care if you are an Indian or an Australian or Muslim or Christian or female or male… It can strike anyone at any time, and it’s a really hard state to be in, especially for young people.

You recently wrote a hard-hitting piece on homophobia affecting sports. How do you think sports can combat this problem?

As is the case with some issues, some people see them as a taboo, which I don’t understand. For whatever reasons, India is probably quite similar to Australia (in homophobia). It’s like mental health and is a topic that is not discussed often or is always frowned upon.

Homophobia in sport is very much present. In Australian hockey system, there are gays, lesbians and bisexuals. They are there in the Indian system too. But for whatever reasons, they have to hide who they are, or hide their true self and that is disappointing. With understanding, we can remove the taboo. More people should start conversations and discussions on the topic and make it easier for people to accept who they are. There are a lot of people in sports out there suffering because they don’t accept themselves as who they are because there is a stigma attached to it. At the end of the day, a lot of people don’t care about your sexuality. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change you as a person. It doesn’t make you any less or more than the others.

You are a journalism and PR student. Do you fancy yourself as full time writer?

Yeah, I study journalism and PR in Australia. That’s what I want to do. At the moment, I’m writing a little bit as a freelancer for a few different publications in Australia. I like discussing topics which aren’t otherwise written about. I guess some of it rubs people the wrong way, but that’s what being a journalist is all about.

Tell us about the importance of having alternate career options…

Extremely important, and this should probably be the next big step for Indian hockey. The players spend a lot of time playing hockey, travelling, living with one another… Hockey is life. I was talking to some of my younger team-mates. They sometimes finish schooling, they don’t have any tertiary education, they spend a lot of time playing hockey. That’s all great, but you are only one injury away from your career being over. One bad tournament away from not being selected, one change of coach away from not being involved in the game any more. Then all of a sudden a lot of people lose their identity.

I think in India, it’s extremely important that someone identifies and explains to a lot of these young guys that although hockey is important you need something else because hockey doesn’t last forever. There will be a time when you are a little older, a little slower and you will need to leave the hockey stick and maybe go and work somewhere else. It is a great system here and the Indian players can get jobs in the police, or railways or air force, but that’s not for everyone.

There will be a lot of other guys still left trying to make their way in the world and that can lead to what we talked about earlier — mental health problems. It could lead to potentially really bad outcomes.

How did you come up with the idea of NaanUpInHere (a podcast on HIL with fellow Australians Mark Knowles, Matt Gohdes, Jacob Whetton and Tristan Clemons)?

 

It is a crazy idea and the more we think about it, the more we wonder what we are doing. But we are having fun. I guess the idea initially was to try and provide a platform for the Punjab Warriors players and hopefully other players as we go along, to contribute anything really funny, silly, educational, informative that will help establish a connection with the fans. It has been fun and it does take your mind off hockey.

At the end of the day, we are here to do a job and hockey comes first. That’s why sometimes our podcasts are little bit delayed, or why we are quiet for a few days or few weeks. But when there is some time off and when everyone’s in a good mood we are up to stupid things such as scaring people in our team. It brings a little bit of lightness to the Hockey India League. For us it does, at least.

Does having so many Australians in the same team help?

Having Australian players and an Australian coach (Barry Dancer) makes it comfortable. We are few less Australians now as compared to other seasons when we were pretty much all Australians. We have a few Dutchmen (Robert van der Horst, Mink van der Weerden) and an Englishman (Mark Gleghorne) as well now. And that’s great; always great to have some diversity in the dressing room. We (foreign players) don’t just follow each other around. We don’t share rooms. Off the field, that’s our great strength. And on the field, yeah, knowing how each other play is probably beneficial for our team.

You are one player who really seems to be soaking up as much as you can during your stay in India. Any wish list for 2017?

Another HIL title — for everyone in the Punjab region. This could be my last time here, so I want to make the most of every situation. I really want to try some street food, but I’m unsure if I will get sick. We had a coconut the other day off the street. Chopped it right in front of us… And we woke up next day feeling really energised. I have never been to the Taj Mahal, so maybe I will try to spend some time at one of the best landmarks in the world. I have really enjoyed my time here, made some really good friends and I would like to think that I have made some impact on a lot of Indian players and hopefully they’ve enjoyed everything I’ve tried to offer.

What Ballon Sur Bitume can teach Indian football

When I was presented the task of reviewing a documentary on French street football, the first question that popped up in my head was a resounding ‘why?’

Why was there a need to review a sports film in India? Especially by a publication like ours — we didn’t review Ronaldo, nor did we review Pele. We even overcame peer pressure and stayed away from Dangal.

Finding the context, therefore, became utmost priority, as I watched the film on Youtube.

Ballon Sur Bitume, which translates as concrete football, is a 50-minute documentary on the street football culture of France, packaged into modules of nostalgia, with the likes of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez and PSG’s Serge Aurier, who have roots in Paris’ suburbs (Los banlieues), narrating their rags-to-riches stories.
While the film highlights the difficulties of growing up in the suburbs — lack of money is a common thread in every footballer’s recollection — it is anything but a fetishisation of poverty, because street football, to the Parisian suburbs, is a mode of expression. Just like graffiti art or rap music is. An immediate escape from the reality that cloud their lives. To be successful at it was to escape the clutches of poverty. It wasn’t just a game for the young Benatias and Mendys — it was their ticket to another life.

The film is, very loudly and clearly, the celebration of this freedom. Freedom of the few, who braved it out in the concretes, honed their skills under the tropical sun, to become world renowned footballers today.

To understand street football it is mandatory to understand the socio-economic backwardness of these suburbs. Many of its inhabitants are immigrants — Benatia is Moroccan, Aurier is from Ivory Coast, and Mahrez plays for Algeria — therefore, the game is an emotional outlet to a set of people struggling to find a home away from home.

Much like the Samba footballers from Brazil, the players who have roots in the Los banlieues have a distinct style – agility, quick feet, ball control, and most importantly a street spirit to win. Like Mahrez says in the film, these players are used to cut-throat pressure, having played in front of aggressive fans while growing up.

The film also delves into the relationship street football has with various with forms of music, dance, and fashion. Style is an element of street football, where restrictions and team rules go for a toss. If you are losing, lose in style. The idea to ALWAYS make a statement.

Interwoven with stunning shots and apt background music, the film on France’s street football is a cinematic experience on its own. The politics of the filmmakers are also quite clear — a ‘fly on the wall’ merely observing the happenings , with no God-like voice-overs influencing the story.

The film finds a special relevance in India or other countries where stifling alternate forms of expression, by tagging it anti-institutional/anti-society/anti-national, continue to be the norm. By criminalizing these counter-cultures, the country is merely cutting its own limbs of progress.

Take the example of Sevens football — a popular 7-a-side football game that is widely popular in North Kerala collectively called the Malabar. A place rich in history — from being one of the world’s first metropolitan cultures due to early century trades with the Arabs to being the first to strongly revolt against the British rule. The region, especially the district of Malappuram, is one of the socio-economically backward parts of Kerala.

There are multiple stories regarding the origins of the game yet the most popular theory involves the flora and fauna of Malappuram ( which means ‘on top of mountains’ in Malayalam). The mountainous terrain meant plains the size of a football ground were a premium. So every summer season, after the paddy was yielded, people would gather in the fields to celebrate the harvest by playing football in the rectangular plots (considerably smaller than traditional football fields) where seven-a-side seemed just about ideal.

The game’s popularity is also connected to the Gulf exodus in the 1970s, when people from the region went the Middle-East to make a fortune. When they came back, they brought back wealth, and lavishly spent it on football tournaments.

Yet this form of game, which has its roots deep into the culture of the land, has not been accepted by the official football bodies. Players are banned from playing the sevens game even at a time when Kerala’s football is at all-time low. Why? The reasons Kerala Football Association gives certainly don’t make sense– shorter fields will affect the player’s growth as a footballer, no system to take care of medical requirements etc. But they are talking as if 11s opportunities for footballers in the state are plenty when the truth is quite the opposite.

What if Brazil and France had opted the same stance? Would we have seen a Ronaldinho (the legend himself admitted how much Futsal influenced his game when he came to Chennai) or a Thierry Henry?  After an impressive debut season, Premier Futsal seems to have kicked the bucket after the AIFF went all guns blazing against it.

The successful countries identified the favelas and the streets as potential scouting grounds. Regions with similar socio-economic climate as most parts of India.

gally-cricket

Youngsters play cricket at dhobi ghat in Mumbai

In a time when efforts have been amplified to make India a multi-sporting nation, it is important to recognize the need for sports to become part of its identity. Just like cricket has. No country can succeed if it sees sports as an alien entity — something not borne from within its culture. With the 1983 World Cup, the advent of Doordarshan and the success of Sachin Tendulkar, India found an identity, a voice to shout at the world, in cricket. Today, kids play cricket in railway tracks and even in narrow lanes of slums. Yet more endemic sports such as Hockey, Kabaddi, or football lost the plot due to bad luck and mismanagement.

Why hasn’t USA men’s soccer reached top levels regardless of plush infrastructure, scholarships and state interest? The answer, as always, lies in the streets. In USA, kids take up basketball or baseball when they grow up. Like how football was a mode of expression for immigrants in France, basketball became closely intertwined with African-American empowerment. Football, or soccer as they call it, still remains something confined to training grounds and state-of-the-art gyms. As long as soccer stays away from the streets, the game will fail to attract the best athletes in the country, who are often hidden in the corners of these socio-economically backward suburbs.

While the India’s football association has been making commendable strides to improve the game, it has often come at the cost of cutting ties with traditional football cultures, be it in Goa or Kerala. Corporatization and professionalism are genuine needs for the game in India today, but as Ballon Sur Bitume shouts out, it should go hand-in-hand with history and existing cultural norms.

Interesting Reads:

  1. “Why America doesn’t like soccer, and how that can be changed”, TIME MAGAZINE, June 12, 2014
  2. “AIFF-FIFA show red card to Goa”, Rahul Bali, Goal.com
  3. “Why is Soccer Less Popular in the U.S.? By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman, and Lucas Nevola.

‘Theatre of dreams’ or an arena of nightmares?

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When Manchester United appointed Jose Mourinho as its new manager in the summer, it did not come as a surprise for football fans across the world. After all, the inevitable had happened. The manager, who has always been open about his love for the Red Devils and who supposedly cried after Sir Alex Ferguson overlooked him for the job in 2013, had finally arrived at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. The script was perfect too — the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ at a club in desperate need of success after seasons of under-performances.

THE ARTICLE FIRST GOT PUBLISHED ON SPORTSTAR – READ

Yet, the alliance between the two, which saw the bookmakers marking Manchester United as favourite to win the English Premier League title at the start of the season, has not achieved the kind of results it had hoped to. In his first 16 games as United’s manager, Mourinho’s record is worse than that of his predecessors, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes.

Mourinho’s biggest problem, perhaps, lies in his own rigidity — an unwillingness to adapt to circumstances, largely due to his staunch belief in self. His stints across clubs (Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid) suggest that the Portuguese, while being a master of moulding well-oiled teams to execute his plan, can sometimes be caught off-guard when his ‘Plan A’ falters.

Take Chelsea’s Champions League battles with Paris Saint-Germain in the past seasons for example. A team that completely dominated the EPL playing a 4-2-3-1 (Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic forming the midfield pivot) failed to stop a 10-man PSG in 2015. Mourinho failed to adopt an attacking approach after PSG went a man down in the early minutes and instead relied on his first-choice plan — to sit back and counter. This allowed the men from Paris to dominate possession and go through on ‘away goals’.

Mourinho picks (buys) players who fit into his formation. He then trains them to perfection and turns them into a winning combination. Every player in the team knows what he is required to do. The problem that Mourinho is facing at United is he does not have the players required to execute his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation — a strategy that more and more football managers are ditching due to its demand for discipline.

Looking at the past for answers

The good thing about football, though, is that most answers can be had from the past. And if United’s match against Arsenal on November 19 is any indication, Mourinho seems to have found the answer to his team’s recent troubles in two outfits that dominated the EPL in the last two decades — Chelsea, which he managed to Premier League titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United of 2006-09.

Mourinho started the match with a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) formation instead of his much-preferred 4-2-3-1. The formation had a fluid front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial (later Wayne Rooney) and Juan Mata constantly interchanging their positions. This was very similar to Ferguson’s front three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez (sometimes Park Ji-sung).

In the midfield, Mourinho had Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupying a more advanced role with Michael Carrick sitting back to protect the defence. This was reminiscent of Mourinho’s Chelsea with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.

Ferguson, perhaps, opted for the front three to best utilise the forwards in his team. Neither Rooney nor Tevez were the traditional ‘big’ strikers and were instead forwards who relied on quick feet and pace to score goals. Ronaldo, who started as a winger in a 4-4-2 system, was also showing tendencies to cut inside from the flanks and score goals. All three forwards were versatile. They not only had the ability to play on the flanks but also were capable of tracking back, thereby allowing Ferguson to play a very dynamic front-three, who constantly drew the defenders out of their positions.

Mourinho’s decision, though, could have been dictated by circumstances. Even though he has a big forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker’s ability has considerably waned since the time they were together before at Inter Milan. (At Inter Milan, Mourinho played the 4-3-3 and Ibrahimovic scored 25 goals). United also lacks quality wingers who can feed the strikers. Mourinho has already tried Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the wide positions, but all have shown a tendency to cut inside and move towards the centre. At Inter Milan, Mourinho had the luxury of his fullbacks, Maxwell and Maicon, helping the strikers in attacks. However, at United, barring the occasional brilliance of Antonio Valencia, none of the fullbacks has lived up to Mourinho’s expectation.

In his first season at Chelsea, Mourinho did not have the same quality of fullbacks (William Gallas/ Wayne Bridge/ Paulo Ferreira) but had natural wingers in Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. That allowed his fullbacks to sit back and concentrate more on the defence.

Mourinho’s insistence on playing the 4-2-3-1 formation also put immense pressure on the wingers. The tactic demands discipline from the wide-men, who not only have to help in defence but also be part of the attack. This is something that players such as Eden Hazard and Ronaldo found difficult to perform. By playing 4-3-3, Mourinho has eased the pressure on his attackers, the extra central midfielder tracking back to support the defence.

Mourinho’s switch to 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3 is an attempt to get the best out of the world’s most expensive player. Pogba has failed as No. 10 or as a part of the two-man midfield pivot in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though the Frenchman has the vision and the athleticism to thrive in the role, he has often struggled with the extra defensive responsibilities put on him. This was highlighted at EURO 2016 where Pogba failed to team up with N’Golo Kante to good effect. France’s manager Didier Deschamps, as a result, was forced to add Moussa Sissoko in the team to strike a balance in the midfield.

United’s new formation also allows the team’s best outfield player of this season, Ander Herrera, to have a greater impact. The Spaniard has shone brightly whenever given the role of the attacking midfielder in the double-pivot of the 4-2-3-1 formation. But he has to do the bulk of the defensive duties while partnering Pogba in the role, which stifles Herrera’s attacking prowess.

Mourinho has therefore inverted the midfield pyramid in the last few matches to bring some much-wanted stability, though the late goal United conceded against Arsenal is certainly a blot on an otherwise dominant performance.

To be fair, Mourinho did try playing the formation after his derby defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But against Watford, he did not have the right players to execute the 4-3-3 to perfection. Rooney teamed up with Pogba as the attacking central midfielders, with Marouane Fellaini sitting back. The Belgian, though physically strong and great in the air, is not a natural defensive midfielder and was found wanting in so many instances. By replacing Fellaini and Rooney with Herrera and Carrick, Mourinho had decoded a formation that best suits his current line-up of players.

Second season wonder

History shows us that Mourinho usually delivers his best in his second season. In his first year (with any team), he gauges his team’s ability, draws up a plan that will work and instils the winning mentality in his players. However, it is in the summer that follows the first season that the Portuguese’s team is at its best.

As the table, ‘Mourinho’s season of success’, suggests, there has never been a second season at a club where the Portuguese hasn’t delivered. The key here is that Mourinho found a formation that worked for each league and then built a team around it.

In his first stint at Chelsea, Mourinho played the 4-3-3 formation to lead the Blues to successive Premier League titles. The 4-1-2-3 formation, with French midfielder Claude Makelele anchoring the midfield, introduced a new line to English football that was still fixated on the 4-4-2. Makelele, positioned between the defenders and midfielders, was an anomaly in English football that preferred having central midfielders alongside each other. It must be said that the formation would have been successful only if the team’s striker was a bully capable of handling two defenders at a time, and in Didier Drogba the manager had the ideal candidate.

At Inter, Mourinho inherited a team that was custom made to defend, with the attacking duties solely on Ibrahimovic and an untamed Mario Balotelli. But the manager decided to sell his prized asset to Barcelona after his first year and used the money to buy world class players, who went on to play a major part in the club’s run to Champions League glory. Most importantly, Mourinho’s second season saw a tactical shift. He switched from the Serie A-winning 4-3-3 (with Ibrahimovic) to the 4-2-3-1 system for the first time in his career — another tactical change to suit the needs of the league.

With Mourinho looking to have finally found a formation that suits the demands of the EPL, the next few transfer windows will prove crucial, for the manager will be recruiting players, who would fit into his new tactics, in the hope of guiding Manchester United back to its glory days.

Sandesh Jhingan: ‘I am who I was three years ago’

The referee had blown the final whistle, but the drama had not ended at the Marina Arena. An altercation between Kervens Belfort of Kerala Blasters and a few Chennaiyin FC defenders had begun. Both teams converged on one side of the ground, with Chennaiyin FC manager Marco Materazzi leading the confrontation. Yet, on the other side a defender was seen thanking the Gods for yet another clean sheet — it was no easy task keeping a star-studded Chennai team at bay — while maintaining a safe distance from the trouble brewing at the other end that saw even the Chennaiyin FC team owner, Abhishek Bachchan, joining in.

THIS INTERVIEW FIRST CAME ON SPORTSTAR

It is perhaps this ability — to keep a calm head in difficult circumstances — that has made Sandesh Jhingan the mainstay of the Indian national team and the Kerala Blasters defence. They say passion, panache and perseverance are the characteristics that define a good footballer, and the 23-year-old defender has all that and more.

Sandesh Jhingan of Kerala Blasters always has a calm head on his shoulders.   –M. VEDHAN

“I am who I was three years ago,” Jhingan said when asked about his celebrity status after playing in the Indian Super League. This best defines the player who takes his National coach Stephen Constantine’s directives on maintaining discipline on and off the field as his life’s mantra.

The versatile defender, who can play in any position in the back-line, has been one of the rising stars of Indian football ever since the advent of the ISL in 2014. Sportstar recently caught up with India’s next generation star.

Question: After a shaky start to its 2016 League campaign, Kerala Blasters has managed a string of good results…

Answer: I don’t think we had a shaky start to the season. Yes, we did not get the results we wanted, but we were gaining momentum and playing a good brand of football. We will take it one game at a time and are confident of going ahead.

How has it been playing with Aaron Hughes under the guidance of Steve Coppell? How has it improved your game?

I’ve been very lucky since I turned pro. I have worked under many good coaches and played along with good players. Aaron Hughes is a top player. He had just played in the EURO and it’s great for me to learn from him and Steve (Coppell). I hope to be a better player for Blasters and the national side.

You have played as a right-back before. Are you okay with occupying that position to accommodate Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart in the team?

I just want to help the team. I am comfortable playing as a full-back. I have played as a left-back in the I-League for Sporting (Goa) and my aim is to help the team in whatever way possible. I have tremendous support from the coaching staff as well. They have constantly been helping me improve.

Chandigarh is not a football hub like Goa or Kolkata, yet Punjab has a history of producing good footballers. Tell us how you started playing football. Was it always your choice of sport?

It was my elder brother Saurabh who introduced me to football. One day he brought a tennis ball home and we started kicking it around in the veranda of our house. It was nothing serious. We then played in the streets and I enjoyed it a lot. I played for the school — to miss my classes mostly — and then the St. Stephen’s Football Academy came along. They wanted me to play for them. I played with them in the Manchester (United Premier) Cup and we reached the South East Asian finals.

That was the time I got serious about football. I got to know about the junior national team and wanted to make it to the squad. I played for the India Under-16 team and then was fast-tracked into the Under-19 team. But then, I suffered a very serious knee injury. I recovered from it, trained for two weeks and then broke my ankle. I was out for one year, and that was when I almost quit football. I was just 17 and these two injuries shook me. But my brothers and parents helped me in my recovery, and I continued playing. Thereafter, I never looked back. I am glad that I suffered those injuries because they made me who I am today.

Tell us about your early exposure to football. Did local clubs such as JCT play any role?

Initially, like most others, I started watching football on TV. It was my brother who took interest and showed me the Premier League. Even today, we talk a lot on football. I started enjoying the games but once I started playing for the junior teams, I started following our national team under coach Bob Houghton. The national team’s victories in events such as the Nehru Cup really inspired me and I wanted to be in the squad some day.

Were you interested in any other sport?

I have played different games. I was good in hockey and athletics, but once I got into football, I concentrated more on it.

You are now part of a new Indian team that is looking to make it big at the international level. Tell us what it means to be part of this team and what coach Stephen Constantine has brought to Indian football?

I’m honoured to be told that I’m part of the future of Indian football. I am excited to be part of this project. Stephen (Constantine) is a great motivator. His speeches prior the games give you goosebumps and they certainly help bring out the best in you. He has brought in discipline — on and off the field. It’s been a great experience playing for him so far. We did have some bad results early on, especially the game against Guam. But that is part of football, and we have come back strongly. You can see that we have improved a lot and now we are winning by big margins. I think we are in the right path but it is important to sustain the momentum and keep believing in ourselves.

What does the team need to do to improve its ranking? Do you think we should play more friendly matches with higher-ranked teams because we play mostly against South Asian opposition, who are ranked lower than we are?

Firstly, I’m not a big fan of rankings. I’m always looking to play in big tournaments. Of course, playing friendlies is a part of the process, especially against tough opponents. A lot of things have been said about the Indian football calendar, and how it hinders the team’s progress. So, we should look at how we can improve the scheduling of the national football games. We need to play tough opponents and learn from them. Our goal should be to feature more in the Asian tournaments. The World Cup is the dream destination, but we need to be realistic with our goals as well. We need to first show our dominance in Asia and then use that momentum to achieve greater things.

Kerala Blasters’ coach Steve Coppell. Sandesh Jhingan has tremendous respect for Steve.   –ISL/SPORTZPICS

One of the biggest criticisms of ISL has been its inability to unearth talent. You are clearly a product of the ISL, earning a place in the Indian team following your performance for Kerala Blasters in Season One. Do you think the criticism is unfair?

All the leagues are here essentially to improve the football in the country. We can’t say if it was the ISL or the I-League that spotted a talent, considering most of us play in both leagues. If we go by numbers, India was ranked 170 when the ISL started and now it is 131. So, we have improved. If you look at the back-line there is me, Pritam (Kotal) and Narayan (Das) who are all 23-24 (years old). We were 20 when the ISL started, so it was a good platform for us to shine. Even though Eugeneson (Lyngdoh) was in the limelight playing for Bengaluru FC, you can’t say his stint with FC Pune City hasn’t helped him improve. Look at Jeje, he had a slump prior to the ISL, and then Chennaiyin helped him improve. Mandar (Rao Desai) is another example.

There is a lot of hype around AIFF’s proposed 3-tier league. What do you make of it and what will it do to a professional football player in India?

I will not comment much on this because I haven’t really read much. I’m sure there are people who are wiser than me who will take the decision. Ultimately, it should benefit Indian football and footballers.

But will a longer league help?

Of course, yes! It definitely will help the players. The ISL is good but it is physically demanding. I played the ISL, national team matches and the I-League last year and finally had to miss the SAFF Cup because I picked up an ankle injury. The season is really hard on us players, so having a longer league will give us more time to recover and play better.

What about employment? Isn’t it better to stay at one club through the year than searching for clubs midway through the season?

I’ve been lucky that way and I have not had a lot of difficulty finding clubs. But yes, finding a club can be an issue for footballers, there is no denying that. It is a dicey issue because you have two clubs talking over a player, but that is football.

How does it feel to be recognised as a star? How has the ISL changed Sandesh Jhingan?

I am who I was three years ago (before the ISL started). I have not let the popularity affect me and I’m a firm believer that nothing should change who you are. So, I don’t let these things affect me.

What about commercial deals? Have you signed any?

I have an ongoing deal with Puma. That’s it. There is nothing else.

Are you happy with the exposure you are getting here in India? Will you be open to moving abroad like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu?

Let’s not forget Aditi Chauhan as well, who had exceptional success in England. And yes, why not? Most of us Indian footballers harbour this hope of one day playing in a big league in Europe. I know it isn’t easy, but it isn’t entirely unachievable either. I am working towards it.

Have clubs approached you?

After the first ISL, we had a couple of interesting offers for trials. But it didn’t work out mostly due to their transfer window shutting and not really coinciding with ours. Last year, there was nothing concrete, so this year I don’t know. I will wait for the ISL to get over and then discuss my future with the agent.

India is hosting the Under-17 World Cup in October 2017. How do you think it will impact Indian football?

I wish I were under-17 (laughs). It is a massive opportunity for the lads and they have a very good coach in Nicolai (Adam). They will get to play against really good teams in such a big tournament. The way forward for Indian football, or for any other country, is to have a strong base of young talent and the World Cup is an ideal platform to develop a pool of players. We have done a remarkable job of shaping these guys, getting them to play a lot of tournaments and developing them. But we have to ensure they remain at the same level even after the World Cup. The tournament should be a catalyst for developing more footballers.

With the event scheduled for the month of October, what do you think will happen to the ISL?

(Laughs) That you will have to ask Ms. Ambani and Mr. Praful Patel.