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Asian Eye - Indian football still finding its feet

Next time you find yourself down in the dumps because your favourite team has failed to win the Champions League for the third straight year, or has only won the EPL this season, stop to count your lucky stars before you start your moaning.

Things could be worse – you could be an Indian football fan.

Every schoolchild could tell you that the average Indian couldn’t give two stuffs about football in a cricket-crazy nation. But the scale to which Indian football just plain sucks is astronomical. Case in point – India’s national team performance in the recent AFC Challenge Cup.

They finished bottom of their group, with a record of played 3, lost 3, goals scored 0, goals against 8. Their opponents in the group – Tajikistan, Phillipines and North Korea.

The population of the entire nation of FIFA-ranked 145th Tajikistan is equal to that of a minor city in India. Yet the Tajik side still beat India comfortably, and would undoubtedly beat them again if they played them again tomorrow.

Fans of stats would point out that India has actually qualified for a World Cup. This is true. The history books show that India qualified for the 1950 event in Brazil.

Couldn’t afford the flights

They also record, however, that the Indians only qualified for the event after every single one of their possible opponents withdrew from the qualification process. And to make matters worse – India never turned up for Brazil 1950 – they couldn’t afford the plane tickets, didn’t have time to practice, and, famously, FIFA wouldn’t let them play barefoot.

Despite some early success in the nascent Asia-wide competitions, winning gold in 1950 and 1962 Asian Games competitions, and finishing as runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup, they have been ragged ever since. And this is a trend that has persisted right through to the present day.

Since reaching the final of the 1964 competition, they have only managed to qualify again twice. More embarrassing still, they are yet to win a game in the Asian Cup since 1964.

But now, further humiliation awaits on a club level. India’s two entrants to the 2012 version of the AFC Cup look like they will be bowing out at the very first stage of Asia’s second-string competition.

The AFC Cup is a poor cousin to the AFC Champions League, and only countries from what the AFC considers to be “developing nations” in terms of football can qualify.

But a decent performance in this competition can guarantee qualification for the President’s Cup, which is considered a fairly decent piece of silverwear in Asia.

India’s two representatives in the competition this year, East Bengal and Salgoacar both sunk like stones last Wednesday, the former turned over at home by Iraqi outfit Arbil. Salgoacar, meanwhile, endured a torrid visit to Jordan, where Al Wehdat brushed them aside 5-0. The results leaves both teams rock bottom of their groups.

For hapless East Bengal, the game seems to be up, they are still to score a single point in the competition. Salgoacar, meanwhile, can still retain the slimmest of hopes, but would probably need to get a win at unbeaten Uzbek side Naftchi Far’gona in order to progress. With Naftchi in excellent form, having won their last two games, that looks like a very tall order.

Hard to get optimistic

It is hard to get optimistic about Indian football. But the only thing football fans on the subcontinent can do is hope that brighter days are not too far away.

2012’s Challenge Cup was a disaster, and it seems Indian club sides are still struggling to make an impact on AFC competitions, but last year did see India break one bit of hoodoo. The three goals that India scored in the 2011 Asian Cup marked the first time the side had found the back of the net in a major competition since the sixties.

There are also a few players who may develop into potential future stars for India – FC Pune goalkeeper Subrata Pal is only 25, yet already has over 40 caps for his country, and has acquired a reputation as a Pepe Reina-style penalty stopper.

He has also been vocal about his desires to make a move to the top leagues in South Korea, Japan or Australia, though no major sides have yet made a move for him.

The I-League also houses another precocious young talent, 19 year-old Air India striker Manandeep Singh, who has scored 8 goals in 11 games for his club, and has already been called up to the national team.

However, for the main, Indian football remains an enigma. The world’s biggest democracy has its fair share of football fans, but it remains the most colossal of underachievers on both the International and the domestic scenes. So as exasperated as you may be with your team of choice, remember – it could be worse, you could be cheering for India.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven


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