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When’ll India, World Football’s ‘sleeping giant’, wake up?

| | in Bhubaneswar

As the month-long FIFA World Cup, the 21st in the series, kicks off in Russia on Thursday, interest in the global sport has soared to unprecedented heights with soccer giants like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England, France and Spain ready to dazzle the fans. This is the first World Cup being held in Europe in 12 years, Germany having hosted the tournament in 2006.

The event will involve 32 teams of which 20 will be making back to back appearances after the 2014 competition. Iceland and Panama will be making their debut in the World Cup.

Altogether, 64 matches will be played in 12 venues spread across 11 Russian cities. The final is scheduled at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15.

Despite the following cricket commands in India, football has remained immensely popular with reports saying that 18,000 Indians are heading for Russia to watch the quadrennial event. The love for football in India came to the fore recently when a passionate plea by the national team captain Sunil Chhetri to the fans to come and watch his team play in the Inter-continental Cup in Mumbai evoked a huge response.

India won the four-nation tournament defeating Kenya 2-0 in the final, but participation in the World Cup for the team positioned 97th in the global ranking has remained a distant dream. India did qualify for the football World Cup once in 1950, but the team did not travel to Brazil for reasons which are not yet clear.

ome versions say the team was not allowed to take part by FIFA as the Indians wanted to play barefoot while other sources claim that the team did not favour the long journey by ship.

Football is played almost everywhere in India with West Bengal, Goa, Sikkim, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and the north-eastern states throwing up players of amazing ability. But the Indian team has not been able to taste success on the world stage though the team of 1962 did win the Asian Games crown with Syed Abdul Rahim of Hyderabad mentoring the players. The I-League, and Indian Super League (ISL) in particular, have enabled the Indians to rub shoulder with World Cup stars from other countries which appears to have given the players confidence to compete at a higher level.

The last time the Indian team performed creditably was at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970 when it defeated Japan, a powerhouse today, 1-0 to win the bronze medal. The period from 1962 to 1970 is reckoned as the golden era of Indian football.

However, the fact that a country of 1.2 billion people could not muster a team which could qualify for the soccer World Cup rankles. Countries of much smaller size and populace have been continuously competing in the FIFA World Cup.

The team that we have today, led by Chhetri, is a mixture of experience and youth but how they will fare in the Asian Cup remains to be seen. Four Asian teams, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iran and Japan, will be featuring in the World Cup this time and all of them definitely look superior to India.

Looking back at the stars India produced over the last few decades, one wonders how they would have been rated had they played for some other top country. Charting a list of players of different eras for different positions and putting together a dream team for India has been a favourite pastime for many sports enthusiasts. If such a team could have been put together, one is tempted to think, India might have made a mark on the world stage.

Thinking of the man guarding the goal, one would not think beyond the tall Peter Thangaraj, a custodian whose anticipation and reflexes made him a legend. Subroto Paul could be his deputy.

While finalising the defence quartet, the name of former East Bengal right back Sudhir Karmakar would come first with hardly anyone to challenge him for that position. It is easy to pick Jarnail Singh, Syed Naeemuddin and Arun Ghosh as the central defenders while Sk. Azizuddin or Altaf Ahmed would be the other wing back. Mohammed Yousuf  Khan, Prasanta Sinha, Goutam Sarkar, Sudeep Chatterjee and Ram Bahadur would unquestionably rule the midfield.

Thinking of the strike force, the first name that comes to mind is that of Kolkata maidan’s famous Chuni Goswami (who incidentally captained the Bengal Ranji Trophy team), Punjab’s Inder Singh, Subhas Bhowmick, IM Vijayan, Amar Bahadur and PK Banerjee. The present Indian captain Sunil Chhetri would also deserve a look-in. Most of members of this selection played for India between 1960 and 1970.

We would never know how this ‘Dream Team’, given an opportunity, would have played on the world stage, but it only gives us the solace that great footballers could be nurtured on our own soil. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter believed that India “is the sleeping giant of world football”. We have no idea how long this giant will continue to sleep.

(The writer is a Bhubaneswar-based snior journalist)




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