In Punjab, JCT was a nursery of young footballers. The club shut shop because it felt that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) wasn’t adequately supporting their interest. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, Orkay Mills, Mafatlal and Air India had a big presence in Indian football.
So, India’s campaign in the U-17 World Cup is over. In about two weeks, the tournament would be done and dusted. Allow us to return to the normal and revive our apathy towards Indian football. When the Salt Lake Stadium was inaugurated in 1984, it looked world-class. The new stadium hosted some Nehru Gold Cup matches to start with—a tournament that lined up some big international stars like Laszlo Kiss of Hungary, Wlodzimierz Smolarek of Poland and an Argentina team (sans Diego Maradona) under Carlos Bilardo, which would go on and win the 1986 World Cup. A few years after the inauguration, a few Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal matches later, the Salt Lake Stadium had lost its lustre. Irate fans had taken care of the polypropylene seats under the pretext of some ‘poor’ refereeing decisions, or anything that prompted them to walk on the wild side. The pitch gradually deteriorated because of the lack of maintenance. Kolkata’s football passion had long been narrowed down to hypes over Bagan-East Bengal and after the advent of satellite television, the English Premier League, the Champions League and other European leagues became the city’s favourite football pass-time. Thankfully, the U-17 World Cup arrived and the Salt Lake Stadium got a Rs 120-crore makeover. Bengal, the hub of Indian football, used to have vibrant district leagues till the 1980s. Those leagues served as talent-churning factories. But rapid urbanisation and promoting spree started to gobble up the green patches, and football in an organised form in the districts badly suffered.
In Punjab, JCT was a nursery of young footballers. The club shut shop because it felt that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) wasn’t adequately supporting their interest. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, Orkay Mills, Mafatlal and Air India had a big presence in Indian football. They used to nurture young Mumbai talents. Then Mahindra United came and made big investment in football. Air India still play the game at a lower level, but the others are gone and the Federation stayed non-reactive. Salgaocar and Dempo SC in Goa and Kerala Police are also history now in terms of top-flight Indian football. Against this backdrop, the India U-17 team’s performance in the World Cup was heroic. In a country where football pitches are at a premium at the grassroots and proper coaching for the kids is by and large unavailable—a few upmarket football schools barely contribute to grassroots development—the Indian colts punched way above their weight. Forget about the team conceding nine goals in three matches. Just revel in their effort that saw them hit the woodwork twice and score a goal. With some luck, India might have won against the South American heavyweights, Colombia. True, close to Rs 20 crore had been spent for the team’s preparation and over 2,000 air miles were covered. But if you consider that Real Madrid have forked out £39.6 million for a 16-year-old Brazilian, Vinicius Junior, who was supposed to be in this World Cup, but couldn’t come because his current club Flamengo refused to release him for the tournament, Rs 20 crore for team preparation for a World Cup looks peanuts. Kudos to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium crowd that gave the young Indian team a standing ovation after their final group league fixture against Ghana. The boys deserved every bit of it.
India coach Luis Norton de Matos made a frank and honest confession about the gulf that exists between a football newbie and the top teams in the world. “After two hard games, it was complicated to play a side like Ghana. African teams at this age-group level are very tough. Ghana was the toughest team and today difference was very big. Our best chance was in the first two games. We had no chance against Ghana,” de Matos said after his side’s World Cup exit. A former manager with the Benfica reserve side, de Matos took charge only in March this year after the AIFF fired Nicolai Adam following a player revolt. When a new coach comes, he starts from scratch. His starting XI rotation in tournament football suggested that he was unsure about the players’ fitness in terms of playing three matches in nine days. But credit to him, he encouraged the kids to play without any inferiority complex. This U-17 team is a work in progress and de Matos would be a perfect fit for their development. “I would like to be a part of this team going into the future, but I still have a few meetings with the AIFF. It is possible,” he said.
This was India’s maiden appearance in a Fifa World Cup finals and, let’s face it, we might not play on the world stage again at least for the next 50 years unless we host the tournament. Does our football have a proper roadmap to invite a bright future? Where will the likes of Anwar Ali, Dheeraj Moirangthem, Komal Thatal and Jeakson Thounaojam go from here? Football is basically a club sport and the youngsters need to hone their skills in clubs. These boys will feature in the I-League. But the I-League has now virtually been relegated to second-tier. And the Indian Super League (ISL) can never be the premier club tournament without Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The powers-that-be in Indian football missed a trick by not incorporating the Kolkata giants into the ISL this term. Their history, heritage and fan following called for special treatment, because without these two clubs Indian football hardly exist. But Indian football cares little for its well-being. So till we get the chance to host another World Cup, at U-20 level, let us make a hasty retreat towards stagnation.