As long as Subrata Paul realises how fortunate he is, he won’t go wrong
Few questions exercise the imagination of those who love sport quite like: “What if?” As far as Indian football is concerned, it has been asked so many times that it has all the value of a Chinese whisper.
The national side is currently 148th in FIFA rankings, sandwiched between St. Kitts and Nevis and Maldives.
Half a century ago, Indian football was not the laughing stock it is today. At the 1962 Asian Games, a team captained by Chuni Goswami won gold, with goals from P.K. Banerjee and Jarnail Singh seeing off South Korea’s challenge in the final. Two years later, it would finish second to Israel in the Asian Cup.
Goswami, an iconic figure at Mohun Bagan, was one of the shining stars of that side. Yet, in many ways, his career was emblematic of the downward spiral that Indian football hasn’t been able to escape after all this time.
In his prime, Goswami received an invitation to train with Tottenham Hotspur. Back then, Tottenham, managed by the legendary Bill Nicholson, was the biggest club in London. In 1960-61, it won the first league-and-cup double of the 20th century. A year later, it retained the FA Cup. The following season, it became the first British side to lift a European trophy, trouncing Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the European Cup Winners Cup final.
Goswami, who also played Ranji Trophy cricket for Bengal, was apparently unaware of just how good Spurs were. In interviews, he has admitted that he had little or no information about English football, and that he never took the Tottenham offer seriously. He carried on playing for Bagan till he quit, aged 30, in 1968.
That kind of opportunity would never come again, and Indian football is immeasurably poorer for it. Just look at the countries that went on to leave India far behind on the Asian stage.
Cha Bum-Kun went to West Germany as a 25-year-old, and would win UEFA Cups with both Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen in the decade that followed.
At 33, he would play in the World Cup in Mexico. South Korea has been Asia’s most consistent and respected side since.
Look too at Japan, not even a peripheral power during Indian football’s glory years. In 1998, the year that it first qualified for the World Cup, Hidetoshi Nakata left for Perugia in Italy.
Two seasons later, he would join Roma and win a Serie A title with it. Asian Cup winner in 2000 and 2004, Japan topped its final qualifying group for Brazil 2014.
The progress that both countries have made has much to do with their best players getting rid of the frog-in-the-well mindset and trying their luck overseas.
For Indian footballers, the challenge is two-fold. The league they play in is of such abysmal standard that performances seldom count for much. Few scouts watch, and thoughts of an invitation from the likes of Spurs are a pipedream.
The few that attempted to leave the nest returned with broken wings. Baichung Bhutia spent two miserable years at Bury, whose hoof-it methods were singularly unsuited to the way he played.
Sunil Chhetri’s experiences in the United States and Portugal were as dispiriting.
Ray of hope
But now, there may be the slimmest ray of hope. Subrata Paul, India’s premier goalkeeper, who once ran with the impoverished gangs of Kolkata, leaves for Denmark and FC Vestsjælland in the New Year.
Promoted to the Danish Superliga last season, the team currently sits in seventh place. A powerhouse of European football it most certainly is not.
But if Paul, a brave and agile custodian who turns 27 later this month, can make an impression, who knows where he might go?
For inspiration, he could do worse than look up the story of a man who was rated the second-best Asian goalkeeper of the 20th century.
Nasser Hejazi played in the 1978 World Cup, and got an offer from Manchester United soon after. He trained with it a month, even playing a game for the reserves, but life — in the shape of the Islamic revolution in Iran — intervened.
As long as Paul realises how fortunate he is, he won’t go wrong.
Dileep Premachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India