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Secrets, suspense and intrigue in see-saw year for Indian football

Jaydeep Basu

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Igor Stimac
Igor Stimac’s wards were winless in the second half of 2019. Photos: Twitter and Google.

New Delhi: To say, they flattered to deceive, will be a cliché. A hackneyed expression of unimaginative mind. Yet, at times, it seems the best way to conceal ultimate disappointment. Especially about Indian football in the last 12 months.

A pleasant walk in the sunshine in the first six months. Followed by desperate attempts to find way in a dark alley.

It reflects everywhere. On and off the pitch. In results of international matches. In age group Asian meet. In rearrangement of domestic structure.

Meanwhile, a few secrets were unearthed. A few mysteries remained unsolved.

They started with a bang. Early in 2019, on January 6. Sunil Chhetri and his men made the nation proud with a 4-1 victory over fancied Thailand in Asian Cup final rounds. It was one of India’s finest nights in recent memory.

India lost the subsequent two matches against hosts UAE and Bahrain. But it did not dampen the spirit. Stephen Constantine’s boys played their hearts out and hopes were deservingly high for the year ahead.

Alas, it didn’t happen that way. Under new national coach Igor Stimac, a relatively new squad was raised. They finished third among four teams in King’s Cup, Thailand.

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India beat the hosts once again on June 8, but that was last time Indian seniors won a match in 2019. Stimac’s boys have gone winless in the second half of the year.

India did throw up some fresh faces in the last few months, thanks to Stimac. It paid dividends, though only to an extent. Players like Narender Gehlot and Sahal Abdul Samad have caught attention but it wasn’t enough to stay afloat in World Cup qualifiers.

Perhaps never before in history India found themselves in an easier group. They simply messed it up. Quite badly. Dropping points against Bangladesh and Afghanistan could no way be explained.

The goalless draw against Qatar rendered meaningless after this. Not even the Croatian coach’s soothing statistics on passing and ball-possession could heal the emotional pain. A golden opportunity went abegging.

Sahal Abdul Samad

Sahal Abdul Samad has made an impressive start to his India career.

To put the blame on boys only would be wrong. Indian football was a story of gigantic administrative disorder in the second half of 2019. It had its ill-effect on everything. Performance was no exception.

In the last six months of 2019, the entire machinery of All India Football Federation (AIFF) went into overdrive to please a particular group of people. Their demand was simple though. A higher social status for a cash-rich league they run.

It was like a privately run company’s directive to its employees to meet the sales’ target. To be achieved by hook or crook. So, every string was pulled. Every arm was twisted. From Nariman Point to Dwarka. From Zurich to Kuala Lumpur.

The target was accomplished. One hundred per cent. With a freshly typed roadmap. No matter how many fell by the wayside. With broken bones and bruised ribs.

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Like the national team, the first half of 2019 raised great hopes at domestic front. Chennai City FC bagged the I-League title, the third new team to win the league in as many years. The pan-India character in football was finally visible.

In next few months, the euphoria stood crushed. By those who gave birth to it and nurtured it for many years. Money given blatant preference over merit. All challenge to prove it on pitch was brushed aside.

Well, it had its brighter side, too. As mentioned earlier, a few secrets were unearthed in the melee. Hardly anyone was aware Indian football had already been sold to a private party back in 2010. Lock stock and barrel. Finally, a series of tweets by a club official opened the Pandora’s Box.

The official made public a 90 odd page “magnum opus” that, since then, has become famous as Master Rights Agreement (MRA) signed with a private party. It’s now the latest holy book of Indian football’s governance. Every word in it is highly respected and followed as religious scriptures.

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Yet, a few mysteries remain unexplained in 2019. No one knows what happened to the meeting of the appeal committee that was due to decide on massive fine imposed on clubs for not playing Super Cup.

Or to the verdict of the ethics committee that pulled an official for using his tweeter handle more often than “permitted”. All waiting to know the results in 2020. With bated breath.

Finally, a wish list for 2020: One: India achieve the near impossible to qualify for next round of World Cup qualifiers. Two: Igor Stimac acts upon his promise of gracing a Second Division match.

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