Having suffered in cricket's long shadow, Indian football has a big test in 2011. Siddharth Saxena examines the problems

As Bob Houghton made a last-minute mental check before leaving the Barcelona hotel lobby for India’s final practice game in nearby Girona, a steward caught his eye. “I’ll leave a jersey for you when we return,” said the Indian coach. It was packing-up time and promises for souvenirs made over the course of the stay had to be kept.

The Indian national football squad had just spent a month in the hotel where away teams stay when they play Barcelona, training beneath the hulking façade of Camp Nou. “We were stopped on the streets a few times and asked which team we play for,” said long-serving defender Deepak Mondal. “When we told them India they’d ask for a spare jersey or an autograph. Many asked for tickets to the game. We had to explain we were just training here at Barça.”

The Indian squad are preparing for their biggest test in decades, having qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup – something they last achieved in 1984. This sudden spurt of attention was rare for Mondal, a footballer from a country where cricket dominates airtime and recognition stops at the club gates. The team’s captain Bhaichung Bhutia only became known to a national TV audience when he thrust his way to victory in the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing. By contrast, his Indian cricket counterpart, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, makes headlines in almost Beckhamesque fashion each time he changes his hairdo.

For the third year running, Dhoni has been the highest draw for TV and newspaper endorsements while teams in the highly lucrative Indian Premier League are owned by corporations and treated like film stars. Meanwhile, Bhutia’s club, Mohun Bagan of Kolkata, fined him for being “unfocused towards club duties” after he won the reality show. During this stalemate – Bhutia eventually left for arch-rivals East Bengal – he earned his 100th cap as India successfully defended the Nehru Cup, a tournament involving five Asian teams.

Bhutia is originally from Sikkim in the mountainous north-east, a region whose footballers have formed the nucleus of the major Indian clubs for a while – it has also provided five regulars for Houghton’s multi-ethnic national squad. This year, football’s importance for the region’s identity has been strengthened by the first-ever qualification of local team Shillong Lajong FC for the top level of the Indian league structure, the I-League. Attendances nevertheless remain poor in a league dominated by second-rate African strikers and Brazilians playing for clubs from Kolkata, Mumbai and the beach state of Goa. Goan club Churchill Brothers took the title last season, thanks almost solely to the league record 26 goals scored by Nigerian Okolie Odafe. But however much the league’s broadcaster, Zee Sports, talks up the efforts of Odafe, TV audiences in the main urban centres remain hooked on the English Premier League games broadcast by rival channels.

Bhutia failed to shine in a two-year stint with Bury beginning in 1999, scoring three goals in 37 League games. Nonetheless, with burly Nigerians and the odd Ghanian dominating the forward lines of I-League clubs, he remains the only star striker India has produced since the national league’s inception over a decade ago.

The much-travelled Houghton had previously coached China and Uzbekistan as well as having a long and successful club career in Sweden. He says that India has been his toughest assignment, primarily due what he sees as a fixed mindset within the administration and a culture that accepts failure far too easily. “I have made a few enemies along the way,” he says, referring to criticism from clubs by insisting that his squad of 29 players be taken away for training. According to Houghton, it was the “non-availability of a single ground for the national team to train on at home” that led to Barcelona being the third successive camp overseas after previous trips to Portugal. Ten years ago a squad preparing for Olympic qualifiers in New Delhi even had to stand in the road flagging down taxis to take them back to their hotel.

Infrastructural shortcomings aside, it is the refusal to adapt to change by an indifferent administration that has halted football growth in India. In west and south-east Asia money was pumped into football by governments that understood the power of sport in nation-building. In India, that role was bestowed on cricket. Indian football fell by the wayside as the increasingly physical international game became too demanding for the skilful, but usually slightly built, local players.

Houghton faces a daunting legacy of underachievement. India made the semi-finals of the 1956 Olympics and the 1970 Asian Games bronze was the last medal. “To have international standing you have to give the national side primary importance,” says Houghton. “You can continue to live in 1956 but that won’t get you anywhere.” Still, if a resident of Barcelona wants an India jersey, maybe there’s still hope.

From WSC 273 November 2009

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