Asian pygmies cocooned in world of their own

WHEN GERMANY walked all over Saudi Arabia early in the World Cup, many felt that it was just a preview of the nightmare that Asia was set for. Get ready for the great trample, they said. But South Korea, with its fast-paced `frenzy football', and Japan authored the weirdest World Cup ever. And after giants like France, Argentina, Portugal, Italy and Spain surprisingly crashed out early, the football fiesta can be termed, the `Tournament of the Turn-ups'. So will Asia's cup of joy flow all over the continent? Will it inspire Indian football? Will it haul it out of the depths? No, it won't, say Olympians O. Chandrasekharan and Simon Sunderraj. So, don't start counting the positives here.

Korea may have made World Cup history by becoming the first Asian team to enter the semifinals and may have even been better than many Europeans stride for stride, but don't count on the Indians to pick up any lessons from the Asians' grand march, they say.

"How can we, when we have politicians like Priyaranjan Das Munshi running Indian football? Will they ever have time for the game ?'' asks Mr Chandrasekharan. "Never,'' he says.

Leaders of the South Asian Federation, giants of the sub-continent. We are probably content with these tags now. Well, we must also realise that we're fast becoming the pygmies of Asia.

But there was a time when India was among the kings of the continent; it was even among the world's top four teams at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When an Indian, Neville D'Souza, was the joint top-scorer in the Olympics and when the country was even given an entry in the World Cup (it withdrew from the 1950 World Cup in Brazil as the barefoot Indians were asked to play with boots).

Mr Chandrasekharan and Mr Simon Sunderraj belong to this golden era. When India last won the Asian Games football gold, in Jakarta in 1962, it blanked Japan 2-0 in the early stages and South Korea 2-1 in thefinal.

"But while teams like Japan and South Korea took genuine interest and developed their football, we didn't, we aren't doing it even now. See how they've progressed in world football and how badly we've fallen. It sure looks like Japan and Korea have brought down the great divide that separated Asia from Europe. But after watching China and Saudi Arabia, I wouldn't say the same about the other Asian countries. And among the two hosts, I felt Japan was better,'' said Mr Chandrasekharan, a defender in the Indian team which triumphed in Jakarta.

It's money that makes the mare go. Football's hares too. While Korea and Japan lured some of the world's best coaches to train their teams, we could just bring in some third-rate trainers.

The two nations have also gone all out to attract top sponsors and big stars. While Japan's J-League roped in some of Europe's top stars prior to their retirement, the Korean league has managed to attract corporate giants like Hyundai.

Sadly, Indian football has often only managed to shoo away good sponsors. Last year's Sahara Cup Millennium international tourney is a case in point. There was even talk of some of the local officials printing fake entry tickets, to make a quick buck!

Our National League is another sorry story. "A team like FC Kochin, which was no team at all, could hold Mohun Bagan, the country's champion club, goalless. Which says a lot for the quality of the event. Only the first edition of the league had some class, it's just been deteriorating after that,'' said Chandrasekharan, who resides in Kochi.

"SBT is another classic example. The Kerala team that won the last Santosh Trophy Nationals was virtually the SBT side. But the bank team could not even do well in the second division National League and failed to qualify for the main league,'' said Chandrasekharan.

And just compare the international stadium in Kochi with the ones we saw in Japan and South Korea. How different. Our stadiums look third rate. Sure, you need to spend money to grow.

"In our days, there was virtually no football in the Middle-East and much of the Far-East. In fact, they learnt much of their game from India. Even a country like Thailand was a football infant. And once, playing with just ten men, we crushed the side 5-1. Can you imagine such a thing now,'' he asks.

But even during those good old days, consistency was not a strong point. "We used to win one big tourney and lose cheaply in the next. South Korea was a strong side even then. And we were poor planners too. In 1964, after finishing runner-up in the Asia Cup in Tel Aviv, we had to play the Olympic Qualifiers after just a week. Naturally, the players were tired and we narrowly missed the Olympic berth after losing to Iran,'' Mr Chandrasekharan said. But what the country had was an abundance of football talent. From quantity came top quality. And that's one reason why teams like Brazil and Argentina excel in the game. Football is a way of life for them.

Even now, despite the empty galleries for our National League, people love football, at least in States like Kerala and Bengal. Only, people want to see good football, especially after watching the top European league matches on TV.

"And even now, I don't think organisers would suffer losses if they host tourneys in places like Kozhikode and Malappuram. So mass participation is the only answer,'' says the Olympian.

"Still, I don't see India coming anywhere close toJapan and South Korea, at least not in the next two decades,'' says Mr Chandrasekharan.

Another Olympian, Simon Sunderraj, fully agrees. How will the players come to the grounds when the game itself is in tatters, he says.

"Cricket is marketed attractively by its officials and with the wide coverage given by the media, there is even a touch of glamour to the game. But Indian football is losing whatever appeal it had. In another five years, I don't think we will have any football in India,'' says Mr Sunderraj, who like Chandrasekharan, was part of the Indian team in the 1960 Rome Olympics where India held France 1-1 in one of the league games.

"And while the Indian cricket association cares for its past players, and arranges benefit matches for them, our football body doesn't. It has a very short memory,'' said Mr Sunderraj, the former coach of FACT (Udyogamandal) who is now settled in Thanjavur.

Parents no longer want to send their children to football, or for that matter, to hockey too. Even former footballers want their children to play cricket or tennis.

"So, children's natural ability to play football is missing now. And even if we bring a coach like Holland's Gus Hiddink, who trained South Korea to a new high, our football will not improve.

"Korea has been a good side for long, naturally gifted, only they needed some tactical assistance which Hiddink gave,'' explains Sunderraj.

Meanwhile, unaware of all the problems our sportsmen face, our sports officials live in their own fantasy world. And they are bidding for the 2012 Olympics!

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