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After Qatar show, Gurpreet enters pantheon of India international goalies

Jaydeep Basu



Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu gave a stellar account of himself against Qatar.

New Delhi: Bob Houghton’s biggest characteristic as India’s national coach was his ability to gauge the limitations of his wards.

His plan, strategy and tactics entirely depended on the quality of footballers he had in hand. He was confident but cautious. Ambitious but quick to apply the brake when things were beyond his control.current sports news

Yet, during his five years stay in India (2006-2011), Bob was reluctant to compromise on one issue – the average height of goalkeepers. The taller they were, the happier he was. Bob was a huge admirer of Subrata Paul’s “incredible courage” but always wished the Bengal boy could have been a couple of inches taller.

It could be the reason why Bob encouraged then age group coaches to work harder on Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Arindam Bhattacharya. Both are six feet plus. When experienced goalkeeping coaches spoke about “technical issues”, he brushed them aside saying they were paid to work on it.

Sandhu has long proved himself one of India’s finest custodians. He is tall, athletic and unbeatable on his day. Asian champions Qatar learned it the hard way early this week. India owe it to him for the point grabbed at the Jassim Bin Stadium.

Association football has its roots in India since the 19th century. Still, India remain a struggling soccer nation; they are yet to produce a truly world class footballer. At the same time, India have thrown up some exceptionally talented goalkeepers.

Atanu Bhattacharya

Atanu Bhattacharya represented the Asian All Star XI team.

Two of them, the redoubtable Peter Thangaraj and Atanu Bhattacharya, have played for Asian All Star XI. Four of them, Thangaraj, Brahmanand, Paul and Sandhu have been conferred with the Arjuna award.

Some never received the recognition but played some memorable matches for the national team.

Not many will recall the heroics of Bhaskar Ganguly against mighty PSV Eindhoven in the 1982 President’s Cup in Seoul. In the previous match, the Dutch giants routed Bahrain 8-1.

On June 11, Ganguly played the match of his life. He made some incredible saves. India led 1-0 before a defensive lapse cost them dear. Yet, the 1-1 draw was the biggest upset of the meet.

In recent years, Subrata Paul was the man to watch during India’s hapless 2011 Asian Cup campaign in Qatar. India conceded 13 goals in three matches. But for Paul the tally could have been 26. His superlative performance earned him the nickname of “Spiderman”.

1962 Asian Games Indian football team

The 1962 Asian Games winning Indian football team.

Indian football never ceases to wonder. Once the national team coach was reportedly put under pressure by top government officials to field a particular goalkeeper. Without it, Thangaraj perhaps wouldn’t have played the historic 1962 Asian Games final in Jakarta.

In 1960 pre-Olympic, India beat Indonesia 2-0 in the crucial encounter in Jakarta. Giant-sized Thangaraj made some stunning saves. Two years later, when India arrived in Jakarta for Asian Games, Thangaraj was yet to fully recover from a bout of fever.

His deputy Pradyut Burman manned India’s goal in the 1962 Asian Games. Burman did a commendable job till the semi-final. Yet, he was shockingly ignored for the final against South Korea, which India won 2-1 to win the gold medal.

subrata paul

Subrata Paul was dubbed “Spiderman” for his 2011 Asian Cup exploits.

Old timers allege top officers at Indian Embassy were still so impressed by Thangaraj’s 1960 performance that they wanted him to play the final. What transpired is not known, but coach Syed Abdul Rahim replaced Burman with Thangaraj.

“It was the shock of my life,” Burman told this correspondent in 2003. “Without my half a dozen saves, India would have never beaten Japan in the group league. Yet, I had to warm the bench in the final.

“The coach knew I was wronged. On our way back to India, we landed in Singapore. Rahim sahib presented me with a wrist watch and simply said jeete raho beta (You may live long, son!). It was a small consolation for me,” Burman said with a bitter laugh.

As we said Indian football never ceases to wonder. Who remembers once Bhaichung Bhutia had to play the goalkeeper for India in an Asian Cup qualifier against Indonesia in 1996?

Goalkeeper Arpan Dey was injured early in the match. And to shock of Indian bench, Dey’s replacement, Yusuf Ansari earned a red card within minutes.

Bhutia had to stand under the bar. He tried his best in the unusual position but could not stop Indonesia from winning easily in that night of disaster.

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ISL: Holders Bengaluru held by NorthEast United



Action during the BFCvsNEUFC match.

Bengaluru: Holders Bengaluru FC began their title defence with a goalless draw against a spirited NorthEast United FC in the Indian Super League (ISL).

Debuts were handed out to several new signings, including Asamoah Gyan, Raphael Augusto and Ashique Kuruniyan but the teams couldn’t be separated at the end the riveting contest.

Bengaluru got off the blocks quickly and pressed NorthEast high up the field.

Ashique announced his arrival with a trademark solo run from the left-back position in the 15th minute. The former FC Pune City player beat three players on his way into the box but shot wide of the mark.

NorthEast United were pinned to their own half in the early stages but were the first to have a shot on target. Collecting a layoff from Asamoah Gyan, Uruguayan Martin Chaves dribbled past Juanan and forced a diving save from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the 21st minute.

A few minutes later, Raphael Augusto split the Highlanders’ defence with an exquisite pass that released Udanta into the box but the Indian winger failed to test the goalkeeper with a wayward shot from a promising position.

The intensity dropped as the first half wore on. The Bengaluru defence failed to clear a loose ball inside the box after the half-hour mark and Rahul Bheke’s header back to Gurpreet ended up with Chaves who slashed wide in front of an open goal.

The game opened up after the break and both teams started finding openings.

Martin Chaves’ rampaging run through the centre in the 52nd minute caught the Bengaluru defence off-guard. The forward found Gyan in space inside the box and the Ghanaian striker’s splendid effort bounced back off the bar.

Bengaluru, however, responded by fashioning two huge chances. Sunil Chhetri won a header at the back post and found Michael Onwu at point-blank range but he could not sort his feet out in time and the danger was cleared.

A headed clearance by Mislav Komorski after the hour-mark fell to Nishu Kumar who unleashed a powerful strike at the goal which Subhasish Roy Chowdhury in the Highlanders’ goal brilliantly kept out with one hand while diving to his right.

Carles Cuadrat brought Eugeneson Lyngdoh on with less than ten minutes to go as Bengaluru tried to find a late winner but the NorthEast defence, led by Komorski and Kai Heerings, and screened by an ever-present Jose Leudo in midfield, did well to close the gaps, frustrate the hosts and pick up a point.

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New team Hyderabad FC have prepared thoroughly for ISL, says Robin Singh

Ashish Mani Tiwari



Robin Singh

New Delhi: Out of favour India striker Robin Singh has said the home team’s draw in the FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Bangladesh was a piece of quality football by both teams.

He praised Bangladesh for fighting valiantly. “Kudos to Bangladesh, they defended really well,” he told Sports Lounge.

Bangladesh were on top of the game right from the very beginning. But India maintained ball possession and created chances. “Bangladesh’s defence was really compact, but we (India) kept on attacking,” he added.

The match ended 1-1.  Defender Adil Khan scored a late goal to help India salvage a point. They have two points from three matches in the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers, one more than Bangldesh.

Skipper Sunil Chhetri expressed his disappointment at India failing to win at home.

“We couldn’t deliver a performance to match the atmosphere at the Salt Lake last night, and the dressing room is very disappointed about it,” tweeted Chhetri.

Robin was recently present at the launch of the Tango League in Mumbai. He praised the initiative for putting focus on grassroots level.

“The adidas Tango League is an extremely popular urban football concept in India and across the globe. I wish I had something like this when I was growing up in football. With brands like adidas coming forward and facilitating such grass root efforts, the league is a boost for city amateurs”.

Robin will play in the sixth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) for the new franchise Hyderabad FC. He is also in form, scoring a hat-trick in one of Hyderabad’s pre-season matches.

He said they have prepared well for the  ISL. “We have not lost any game in pre-season.  It certainly lifts up the spirit up of team and we are looking forward for the upcoming season.”

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Thin talent pool, low match count: Problems aplenty for Indian football coach Igor Stimac

Jaydeep Basu



Igor Stimac
New India football coach Igor Stimac is already under pressure. Photos: Twitter and Google.

New Delhi: Former India coach Bob Houghton would offer a sarcastic smile whenever there was a mention of India’s large population and its untapped soccer talent. When he spoke, his tone hung somewhere between sarcastic and annoyed.

“You talk about 130 million people. Yet, your pool of footballers is smaller than a tiny European nation,” he once told this correspondent. “There are not more than 75 players from whom I can choose my national team. That’s not enough,” he argued.

Houghton’s irritation was easily understandable. There was no Indian Super League (ISL) during his tenure (2006-11). I-League had 10 or 12 teams. The regulation allowed each club to field maximum of three foreigners in the playing eleven. The number of frontline Indian footballers never crossed the hundred mark.

The situation has gone from bad to worse. Though it should be better because of two parallel leagues and bigger number of teams. Almost all top players play in ISL. It enjoys nearly cent percent monopoly in the national team.

Under the current regulation, each ISL team can have maximum of five foreigners on the field at any given time. It further shortens the national coach’s options. Arguably, the pool of footballers is reduced to 60. Nearly half of them get a call to the national camp. So much for a nation of 130 million!

Igor Stimac

India have drawn two of their three Fifa World Cup qualifying games under Igor Stimac.

There are other problems too. The number of top-tier matches in India have come down drastically. If not alarmingly. Two decades ago there was a situation when All India Football Federation (AIFF) felt footballers were playing too many matches. It issued a circular saying no top-tier footballer would be allowed to play more than 50 matches in a domestic season!

It was a circular in complete contrast to the present situation. A look at the list of national team players would reveal none of them played more than 25 matches (let’s make it 30) in a season for the last couple of years.

A national team footballer recently said: “I played 120 or more matches in the first three seasons of my career. Now I struggle find even 25 competitive matches in a domestic season.” Not exactly a huge compliment for calendar planners.

Sources say a technical person in the AIFF recently raised this issue in several internal meetings. He wondered how a 10-team closed league and just a six-month domestic season can take India to the world level. He questioned the lack of match practice for seniors and youth team policies too.

The latest information is that the person is being branded as a “difficult” person, who asks “unreasonable” questions. Not to be surprised if he is shown the door.

Is it an unwritten law that only footballers from the ISL are eligible for the national team? Well, one has no idea. Previously, coaches used to look for players beyond the national league. One would like to believe the policy is still in place.

Jiri Pesek

The visionary Jiri Pesek was bold enough to induct unknown but talented players into the Indian football team.

At least two coaches, who won I-League titles, felt the need of bigger pool of players. “Some talented footballers are there in I-League. They may still not be ready for the national team. But a few stints at the national camps could be good for the future,” said one of them.

Gone are the days when Jiri Pesek would spot a player in Himachal Santosh Trophy team and would induct him in national squad. Or an unknown teenager from Sikkim would straightaway be introduced at national level by the coach at his own risk.

Things have changed. Dramatically, post 2014. The stamp on the back is somewhat important. Though the difference in talent is not exactly huge. In fact, it is the lack of extraordinary talent (barring a few) is adding to the problem.

In 2019, India is a market-driven country. There is no place for welfare measures. Call them inept, call them unprofessional, but they know how to count their money. Football is part and parcel of society. Things can’t be different here.

Find more articles from our sports columnist at Jaydeep Basu.

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