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Dearth of technically sound players hurting Indian football

Shabbir Ali

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India failed to qualify from the group stage at the AFC Asian Cup. Photos: IANS

There was a tinge of optimism in the Indian footballing community after a favourable draw at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. We were slotted in a group that did not have any top ranked continental team neither any pre-tournament title favourites (think Iran, Australia, South Korea, Japan etc).

What added to the feeling was that our preparation was reportedly good, drawing against higher ranked teams like China and Oman in friendlies before the big kick off.

We were on cloud nine after thumping Thailand 4-1 in our Pool A opener, the highlights of which were repeatedly telecasted on TVs to pump up the hype. A feeling was generated that we would surely qualify for the Round of 16 for the first time.

But after expectations reached dizzying heights came the inevitable fall and a golden opportunity was squandered. We went down to hosts United Arab Emirates after putting up a good fight, bowing out after conceding from a last-minute penalty against Bahrain, following which the head coach Stephen Constantine promptly put in his papers.

In the last match against Bahrain, quite a few things went wrong, tactics and game plan included, and we could barely mount attacks or create chances like we did in the previous two matches.

Stephen Constantine resigned as head coach following India’s ouster from the AFC Asian Cup.

Positive Signs

There were, however, some positives in our performance that come to my mind. We showed improvement in fitness and team work. We were agile for the entire 90 minutes of play and did not get overawed by superior teams. We showed good pace on counter-attacks.

In the 2011 edition of the tournament, we had gone down 2-5 to Bahrain, this time we lost only by a 0-1 margin, that too by a last minute goal. We kept the margin of defeat to a respectable limit (0-2) against the hosts, a match which we could well have won had we taken our chances. This is in stark contrast to the heavy defeats we had suffered against Australia (0-4) and South Korea (1-4) in Qatar 2011.

Creativity In Midfield Missing

However, there were perceptible areas of weakness. We did not use the ball well while in possession. Failing to keep possession, we ran out of ideas when pressurised by Bahrain. Misplaced passes in the midfield or while playing out the ball from defence meant we conceded possession cheaply.

What I feel we sorely lacked was a creative midfielder who could seize control of the game and unless we find an exceptional player in that position we will not be able to make a mark.

Possessional football is not foreign to us. Apart from East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Dempo’s credo has been possessional football from the time of Joseph Ratnam in the 1970s. Salgaocar too have played in a similar fashion under the late Thulukhanam Shanmugham.

It’s debatable whether excessive possession is effective or counter-productive but the ability to keep possession undoubtedly helps to some degree. For that you need players of reasonable technical ability like Samaresh Choudhury (Pintu) and Krishanu Dey. We sadly do not have them in great numbers now.

Rotating Captains

What I was also perturbed about was the concept of “rotating captains” that was implemented in the UAE and also in some games preceding the tournament. A change of captain is in order only if the present or established captain is not in form or not in the first XI. It is not a new concept in Indian football though. It was a practice that was tried out during my playing days in 1983/84 when the legendary Ciric Milovan (at that time he was rated among the top ten coaches in the world) had taken over and we had quite a few senior and well established players in the squad.

But in the present case, Sunil Chhetri is head and shoulders above his teammates and has been in good form for years. So I don’t think rotating captains was a good idea.

Derrick Pereira has been named India’s coach for the AFC U-23 Championship.

Short tenure an issue for my friend Derrick

After the Asian Cup, our next assignment is the AFC U-23 Championship, also the qualifiers for 2020 Tokyo Olympics, from March 22. The probables have been announced and Derrick Pereira has been named as the coach. We go back a long way. We played together for the national team in 1984, my final year in India colours.

He then played under me at Salgaocar in 1997. A solid central defender, Derrick possessed a good reading of the game from the very beginning.

Derrick was one of the few Pro and A licence coaches who deliverd good results with young and talented players especially when he was at Vasco SC. He then joined Mahindra United and guided them to the National Football League (NFL) and Federation Cup double in 2005, the two premium trophies in Indian football in those days. Till recently, he was in charge of the youth development wing of FC Goa.

He has been appointed for a limited period, which is an issue. He is capable of delivering but it is difficult to produce results straight away. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) must hand him a contract of at least two years.

He will be assisted by S. Venkatesh, who came into the limelight with Salgaocar in the 1998/99 season. He has been within the national set-up for the last few years, which will be helpful. It was Venkatesh who spotted Ashique Kuruniyan and Anirudh Thapa, both of whom are in the U-23 probables squad and are good prospects for the future.

Many players in the senior and U-23 squads have graduated from age group teams. Quite a few among the U-23 probables squad played for India in the 2017 U-17 World Cup. Their transition to India’s U-23 team in a short span of time might determine their future. Their development will be followed with keen interest.

(The views, if any, are personal in nature and the portal can’t be held responsible for anything appearing in the writer’s name)

First Person

Revisiting Indian football’s last triumph in Asia, 45 years on…

Shabbir Ali

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The Indian team's victory at the 1974 AFC Youth Championship was even praised by then PM Indira Gandhi.

India were declared joint winners with Iran in the AFC Youth Championship on April 30 in 1974.

India’s successes in international football are few and far between. The last one at the continental level came 45 years ago, on this very day (April 30) in 1974, against all odds and expectations, when India shared the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Youth Championship (under-19) title with Iran in Bangkok, Thailand. I was fortunate to not only be a part of that team but also be its skipper.

The national under-19 team had participated in the tournament several times but had failed to move out of the group stage or reach the quarter-finals knock out stage. But this time it was destined to be different.

The usual preparatory one-month camp for the tournament kicked off in Patiala in attendance of 35-40 footballers under the stewardship of coaches Syed Abdus Salaam, the 1956 Olympian, and Arun Ghosh, the defender who featured in the 1960 Olympics; Dilip Kumar Ghosh was named the manager.

There was an uncertainty regarding the team’s clearance to play, the government not being in favour of sending the team as India’s past performances in youth selections were not impressive. But the federation officials assured the sports ministry that this was a promising lot and would fare much better than the earlier ones.

Since I was the senior most as well as the in-form player in the 1970s, the burden of captaincy was thrust on my wiry shoulders; Prasun Banerjee was named the vice-captain.

Our team spirit was good, we were just like a family and determined to give a good account of ourselves despite lack of expectations back home. The coaches and the manager were always ready to help us. Dilip-da even used to make bed tea with some players in his room and served the boys.

We mostly played with a 4-2-4 formation during the camp as well as in the tournament, with the acrobatic Prashanta Moitra in goal, Amit Dasgupta and Devanand as stopper backs and CC Jacob and Dilip Palit as side backs, both being keen to go on the overlap.

Shabbir Ali (centre) with the 1974 AFC Youth Championship trophy. Prasun Banerjee is standing to his left.

Devraj was a workaholic in the midfield and Prasun the creative one. We also had good ball players/speedy wingers in Mohammed Yakoob and Latifuddin while Harjinder and myself made up a nippy striking pair. Our bench strength was also formidable.

Our strategy was simple: take the lead in the first half and defend it till the final whistle. It clicked. In most of the matches, we were 1-0 up at half-time and won by that margin.

The funny thing was when we topped the group, beating Laos and Burma both by 1-0 margins and drawing with Hong Kong 2-2, we thought that we would never get past Singapore in the quarter-final!  I scored a goal apiece in first two games and the quarters, while Yakoob notched up a brace in the third.

We improved with each match and fought hard against Singapore, shot stopper Prashanta emerging as our hero in the 1-1 (4-1) tie-breaker win.

We faced an uphill task against “hot favourite” Thailand in the semis, who had beaten the mighty Japan in the group stage. But we rose to the occasion and pipped the hosts 2-1, Yakoob and me once again finding the target.

Our opponent in the final Iran had pumped in 10 goals in the group stage. In the quarters and the semis, they had thumped Hong Kong and South Korea by 3-0 margins, without conceding a goal. Everyone not only tipped Iran to win but said they would teach us a footballing lesson. But we were supremely motivated and our performance surprised not only Iran and the Continent but also ourselves.

When our team bus moved alongside Iran’s bus towards the stadium for the final under police protection, we heard them singing, chatting and making merry, which indicated that they were brimming with confidence.

Our coaches Salaam bhai and Arun da commented, “The way they are behaving, it looks like they are taking us for granted. They are not showing us any respect, we have to show them we are no pushovers!”

AD Devraj (left) and Mohammed Yakoob distinguished themselves in the tournament.

And indeed it turned out that way. We fought for every ball, never slackening our intensity. It was 1-1 at full time and we took the lead in extra time. Iran equalised in the dying minutes of the game to make it 2-2 (Latifuddin and myself scored, my fifth in the tournament). It was then decided that we would share the trophy.

Our feat drew praise from even the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Several members of that squad like Prashanta, Prasun, Latifuddun and myself got into the senior team that very year. Others like Palit, Jacob, Harjinder and Devraj got the nod a little later.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) should have kept the team together but in those days things were different – all we had was a one month camp/tournament and that was that! But I am not complaining.

I later heard that the Iranian players received a house and a car each for becoming joint champions. We were felicitated by Mohun Bagan, who presented each player with a leather suitcase. We were received at the Calcutta airport by the then AIFF president M Dutta Ray.

Of that bunch of achievers, Salaam bhai, Dilip-da, Prashanta, Yakoob, Devaraj and Latifuddin are no more.  This article is a tribute to the departed (though they are still fresh in our collective memories) as well as to those who are still alive.

THE GOLDEN TEAM

Goalkeepers: Prashanta Moitra, Chandan Chakraborty; Defenders: CC Jacob, Joaquim Barreto, Dilip Palit, Amit Dasgupta, B Devanand, Chinmoy Chatterjee Midfielders: AC Devraj, Prasun Banerjee (vice captain), PM Kumar, Tapan Bose Forwards: Latifuddin, Sisir Guha Dastidar, Harjinder Singh, Shabbir Ali (captain), Govinda Das, Mohammed Yaqoob; Coaches: SA Salaam and Arun Ghosh; Manager: Dilip Kumar Ghosh.

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First Person

Hockey India have put itself in a penalty corner by not playing the Pro League

Joaquim Carvalho

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Hockey India seems to have erred in not playing in the Pro League.

Going by the heavy presence of personnel from Australia in Hockey India’s set-up, appointing Graham Reid as the head coach was not a surprising choice.

India’s preparations for the Tokyo Olympic qualifiers took a hit with the team finishing runner-up at the Azlan Shah Cup and there being no takeaways from Malaysia either.

This denouement has unwittingly served to highlight Hockey India’s (HI) folly of pulling out from the Pro League and the specious reasons that were advanced for not taking part—that both the men’s and women’s teams stand a better chance of qualifying through the World League round 1 and 2, and that the Pro League would give only the top four teams a chance to play in the Olympic qualifiers.

Further, it was also mentioned that our women has no chance of finishing in the top four, though the men’s chances looked bright. HI was also skeptical about the hazy ranking system for the Pro League. It also hurled the most astonishing allegation that the International Hockey Federation (FIH) was biased towards the Europeans teams, which sounds ridiculous since its president (Dr. Narinder Dhruv Batra) is an Indian.

All this portrays a lack of confidence in the HI set-up. A defeatist mindset about our Olympic qualifying chances is bound to have a negative effect on the players and coaches.

Results in the recent Azlan Shah have flattered to deceive the Indian hockey team.

HI’s flip flop on participating in the Pro League is nothing but trying to put pressure on the FIH to reinvent their qualification process, knowing that India is a gold mine for the FIH in terms of getting sponsors for its activities. But now with the Pro League in full bloom with thrilling games being played, India’s absence is not felt at all.

HI seems to have put itself in a penalty corner by not playing in the Pro League. The Pro League, besides offering higher ranking points, also offers teams an opportunity to play top quality and top speed hockey against the best teams in the world which would have been ideal preparation for us instead of playing in the World League against mediocre opposition.

The national federation fears that if India was upset by some teams in the Pro League it would have a detrimental effect on the sport.  But the eventual outcome in the recent Azlan Shah Cup has generated the same effect.

Even if India did not finish in the top four in the Pro League or finished in the middle or last, due to the higher ranking points, they would have earned more or less the same points earned by playing in the World League. Every team will be fighting hard for a prestigious berth in the Olympics so the qualifiers are not going to be a cakewalk going by the home and away fixtures lined up.

Graham Reid’s appointment should have been made much earlier by Hockey India.

The chief coach for the national team has finally been appointed, and, no surprise, going by the heavy presence of personnel from ‘Down Under’ in the HI set-up, it’s an Australian!

Having settled on Graham Reid, the welcome from HI for the incoming coach has been expectedly lavish, but the exits have always been unceremonious! Never in the history of Indian hockey has the president ever accepted the blame for a disaster and stepped down. But the players and coaches have always been ready targets while the officials continue to rule the roost.

Every foreign coach coming to India makes tall promises knowing fully well that he will be shackled by the unpredictable bureaucracy. Reid has been known to favour experienced players, he once brought back Jamie Dwyer when Ric Charlesworth had him dropped from the national team due to poor form.

Graham Reid could think of recalling the retired Sardar Singh.

So, for starters he could give the idea of recalling Sardar Singh from retirement a thought. Reid’s appointment anyway should have come much earlier so he would have had enough matches under his belt to gauge the quality of his players for the all important Olympic qualifiers.

Indian teams, of late, have struggled to keep the momentum high throughout the game and successive coaches have failed to rectify this shortcoming. The decision making process of players when under pressure has also gone awry and the disastrous tendency to concede late goals has returned. Will the experienced Reid be able to improve matters?

I have repeatedly heard the argument that juniors are being inducted into the senior team and they need time to shape up. When donning the senior team colours the tag of being a junior becomes irrelevant. They must perform or perish at that level. That said, the juniors would have gained better experience by playing high voltage hockey in the Pro League rather than the Azlan Shah and World League.

Indian hockey has been noted for its fast, attacking skillful play, earning maximum penalty corners and scoring field goals, but not in proportion to what is expected of a world beating side. We now learn that Australian forward Kieran Govers (yet another) was appointed to train our forwards in goal scoring even before the national coach was announced. His appointment raises several questions.

Hockey India should secure the services of India’s goal scoring legends like Dhanaraj Pillay.

So what were the foreign coaches who were previously employed focusing on? Didn’t they realise this shortcoming earlier considering that we have just hired the 25th coach in 25 years? Why did HI not let the new coach decide who he wants to bring in? Or was this pre-arranged before? Are the Australians the best in this goal scoring business? Who was instrumental in hiring this specialist coach? Why weren’t our own recent goal scoring legends like Dhanaraj Pillay, Gagan Ajit Singh or Deepak Thakur considered?

Be that as it may, hope all these developments augur well for Indian hockey. The road ahead is long and winding but Reid brings in a lot of experience and modern day know how. Can he engineer a successful Olympic qualifier and thereafter a podium finish in 2020?

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First Person

AIFF must keep in mind foreign coaches are no guarantee for success

Shabbir Ali

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The hunt for India's next national football team coach is on. Photos: Sourced online.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) will soon shortlist applicants from about 260 job seekers who have applied to become India’s head coach following Stephen Constantine’s resignation after the 2019 Asian Cup.

Not everybody would be happy with the development as many believe that an Indian must get the job, although others opine that a foreigner from a more advanced footballing culture is best equipped for the job.

The debate has been going on since 1964 when the Harry Wright took over as the national coach, albeit not with the best results. As one 1960 Olympian who played under the Englishman commented, he was not the ‘Wright’ choice for Indian football.

During the 1970/80s, Indian coaches produced results, though they were appointed for one tournament or two.

Under PK Banerjee and GMH Basha, India finished third at the 1970 Asian Games. India were the joint champion in 1974 Asian Youth Championship in Iran under the late SA Salam and Arun Ghosh, our last trophy at the Asian level.

Under PK Banerjee (pictured) and GMH Basha, India finished third at the 1970 Asian Games.

Indian coaches should be given longer time. Derrick Pereira was given only two weeks to helm the U-23 team for the 2020 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Championship qualifiers.

Despite not having time by his side, Derrick’s boys produced reasonable performances against tough opponents like Uzbekistan and Tajikstan.

Our experience with foreign coaches has produced mixed results. Critics say that a having a foreign coach is not a good idea as he does not know the language. But that is not a valid criticism. I will always remember what Basha bhai, who enjoyed three stints as India’s coach during the seventies, used to say, “Football has a universal language.”

His belief got validation when Vitali Suyunov came to India for a month on the invitation of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) during the mid-nineties.

Rustam Akramov was India’s coach during the mid nineties.

Rustam Akramov was our national coach then. Suyunov, Akramov’s mentor, didn’t speak English but conducted a training session with effortless ease to the amazement of all present, including reporters. But of course, it helps if a foreign coach is able to communicate in English.

It is customary in football for countries to hire foreign coaches. I think about 80-85 per cent of national football coaches are foreigners.

Two experienced Indian coaches should assist a foreign coach, explaining the various cultural and language problems our players face. One of them should have a decent command over English and should be able to translate it into Hindi for the benefit of players.

India’s best foreign coach was Milovan Ćirić (1984-85), then ranked among the 10 best coaches in the world. I was fortunate to play under him.

Ćirić made a lasting impact on Indian football. The national team used to stay in youth hostels, schools or military barracks during the camps but the Yugoslav national instead that they should be upgraded to four or five star hotels. Some critics made fun of it, saying that he was introducing five-star culture in Indian football but I felt it was a positive development.

Milovan Ciric (centre) produced some good results during his tenure in the 1980s.

He knew how to get the best out of players. Our team (with Santo Mitra and Amjad Khan as assistant coaches) performed well under him. We narrowly lost 0-1 to a star-studded Argentine team in the 1984 Nehru Cup, a team that had several players, coach Carlos Bilardo (minus Diego Maradona) who went on to win the World Cup two years later. We also qualified for the 1984 Asian Cup finals.

He used to only come a month or two before an international tournament unlike now when foreign coaches are in India for the entire year. Had Ćirić been allowed to be with us for the entire duration our results could have been much better.

Hungarian World Cupper Josef Gelei and Uzbekistani Akramov were the other notable coaches who came to India.

In more recent times, Bob Houghton and Stephen Constantine (second innings) also delivered results. But considering that all of their demands for the job were met, more was expected of them.

Bob Houghton coached India from 2006 to 2011.

In 2005, during his first tenure, Constantine returned to Goa after India lost to Oman in Kochi. He joined in a discussion I was having with some Goa FA officials in the Nehru Stadium at Fatorda. I urged him to take a look at some talented players in the State Bank of Travancore team who were playing well then.

But to my disbelief, he said that SBT play in the second division of the National Football League (predecessor to the I-League) and hence were not suitable for consideration.

I was really surprised at his statement, and also that of India’s former technical director Rob Baan, who excused himself from watching the Santosh Trophy in 2013.

The AIFF should have made them realise that teams playing in the top tier represent only few states/centres, a situation that persists till today, whereas the Santosh Trophy gave teams from all states a chance to shine.

Stephen Constantine stepped down after India’s exit from the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Foreign coaches should not talk too much and should realise that the football set-up in India is not standardised in all states as it is in Europe. So I was happy to hear Constantine say during his second stint that he would go to small and big tournaments, including the University level, to spot players.

I feel that an Indian coach should take over the reins for atleast two years. And if the AIFF does that, I am sure the results under him would not be any worse than what we have achieved under some of our recent foreign coaches.

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