Thursday, May 18, 2006

Experts ponder next steps in India's football revival

More Indians may watch the 2006 FIFA World Cup on TV than any other community in the world. But India's own team has seldom made it past the zonal elimination rounds. 1950 was the year India almost took part in the finals. "Those were the years," as Saurabh Kapoor of Zee News recounted, "when Indians played bare feet and teams attended the World Cup by invitation only. India’s impressive performance in the 1948 Olympics got them an invite to play the World Cup. Just before the event, which was to be staged in Brazil, FIFA moved the goalpost and made it mandatory for all teams to wear football boots on the field. Indians refused to bend their tradition of playing barefoot." A missed opportunity, perhaps, as India went on to win the 1951 Asian Games gold medal in football and came fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In boots or not?

In the Asian qualifiers for the 2006 Germany World Cup India finished third in its group of four teams and it now sits at a lowly 117th on FIFA world rankings What's the solution? "We need to have at least four residential football clubs in India. Even in smaller countries like Japan and Korea, the government invests money in football academies," Devashish Dutta, secretary of the Kolkata-based Mohan Bagan club, told Swati Subhedar of the Times of India. National football captain Baichung Bhutia admits there is "immense talent" in the country, but rues, "lack of proper training at grassroot level." According to East Bengal's Alvito D'Cunha age is a prime factor that plays a key role in forming a quality football player. "Abroad, children start at a very young age. They have quality infrastructure and they get proper training. So, they are all set to compete at the international level at a very young age. This does not happen in India."

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