Few more days till the end of 2011. Time to look back at what the Indian national team has achieved to date since my last post earlier in August.
Where did I leave off? Fundamentally, mentioning the idea of watching the Bhangra boys, as they are known, playing in “a” World Cup during my lifetime.
Realizing the fact that the time period between August and December is not long enough to come up with a conclusion, however, it does give us an idea on how football in the country has progressed.
At an international stage, concentrating on FIFA sanctioned friendly games; India managed to pull out a loss (received an absolute spanking by the Zambians) followed by a draw and a win each, against a Malaysian side that is ranked 14 places above the country in the FIFA World rankings. Not bad.
These games set a good foundation for what was to come next: the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Cup. The tournament consists of eight teams from the region and has been taking place every two years since its inception in 1993. As expected, India came out strongest of the eight eventually winning the championship for the sixth time.
Previously it was Baichung Bhutia, whose name resonated when it came to Indian football. Today, it is Sunil Chettri. The lad picked up the MVP award at the Championships as he scored seven goals. Most recently, he was singled out for the most coveted prize in Indian football, the AIFF (Indian FA) player of the year award.
Along with his striking partner, Jeje Lalpeklua, the country’s football faithful would be relying on them to carry the team forward. Both have an immense potential of playing abroad, but it will only come at the expense of support from the Indian FA and their individual hard work. Having recently returned from Glasgow Rangers, where both barely got a chance to kick the ball during their one-week trial, must have encouraged them to up their performances to another level.
Were there any chances of them mesmerizing the Gers in one weeks time? Not really. Scouts usually come to a country to watch top footballers and then invite them. Not the other way.
Moving to the domestic side of football. The I-league is progressing in terms, of sponsors, TV broadcasts, and most importantly, the quality of play. However, anyone to do with Indian football should be concerned, as currently after the tenth round of league games, the top five goal scorers are foreigners, with an Indian name popping up at eight place in the form of Manandeep Singh (5 goals).
I will say though, as pessimistic of a fan that Indian football has turned me into, future is looking bright. Interest in the sport is picking up paces all over the country. Seats sold out at an upcoming exhibition matchup in January between India and German giants Bayern Munich, is a testament to that. This would also be the last time a fan would see the great Baichung Bhutia in national team colors.
Moreover, the recent launch of Premier League Soccer (PLS) will make the sport more attractive in the country. The concept is similar to that of its rival sporting league: cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL). The notion is that the tournament will be held for 7 weeks between six franchises from various locations. Each franchise will comprise of an “icon player” followed by some “good” players and then Indian players. Please keep an eye on how I specifically separated “good” and Indian players.
The current world-class icon players roped in are Juan Pablo Sorin, Maniche, Jay Jay Okocha, Hidetoshi Nakata, Sergio Conceiçao, and Robert Pires. Not your typical players of which neither are currently active, nor can I say that they are in their prime. They have all retired, that too quite a while ago, but the thought of $400,000-600,000 for seven weeks could even bring the dead out to play ball.
This idea, if implemented in the right manner, will definitely boost the popularity of the sport in India. It will also provide an opportunity for the Indian athletes as they get to train and learn from top footballers, eventually brightening their prospects of performing at a higher level.