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Saturday, June 30, 2001

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Living in the past

A BURDEN of talks on Indian football is its fourth place in the 1956 Olympic Games. Sadly, the frequent reference to it for nearly five decades is beginning to dull as our only meritorious achievement.

Occasionally, we have been able to raise our heads, thanks to the gold medal in the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962 and the bronze medal in the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970. But, overall, the picture is depressing. This, despite our teams taking part in more events than before the Melbourne Olympics.

Increased international participation, with further impetus through the conduct on home ground of the 1982 Asian Games and the Nehru International Gold Cup annually in the 1980s and biennially in the 1990s before being shelved, has not yielded encouraging results.

Pause to reflect on this. The two teams India defeated in Melbourne were Japan in the first round and hosts Australia in the next, which was the quarter-final. Charting the subsequent progress of the two on the world stage would be worthwhile.

Strictly speaking, Japan and Australia were not novices. The Football Association of Japan was founded in 1921 and affiliated to FIFA first in 1929 and after the second World War in 1950. The Australian Soccer Federation was founded in 1961 and affiliated to FIFA in 1963. But football was played in Australia much earlier, as is evident from the tour in the 1930s by an Indian Football Association team.

But at the Melbourne Olympics, neither Japan nor Australia was great shakes. Football was very much a minor sport in those countries. Australian soccer got a leg up through the influx of East Europeans following the Hungarian revolution around the time of the Olympics. It built itself up steadily, and made the final rounds of the World Cup in 1974 when it was limited to 16 teams and was frustrated by Iran in the Asia-Oceania two-legged play- off for the 32nd place in the final rounds of the last World Cup in France.

Japan, on the other hand, struggled and qualified from Asia for France 1998, where its fans and it made a fine impression. The Asian industrial giant had hired former FIFA chief coach, Dettmar Cramer, to guide its 1964 Olympic team. Four years on, Japan became the first Asian country to win an Olympic medal. Some of its stars, like Kunishige Kamomoto, proved good enough to shine in tough, higher level European football. Hidetoshi Nakata, of the 1998 World Cup team, plays in Italian Serie A and commands an appreciable transfer fee.

In the recent FIFA Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup in South Korea and Japan, the currently third highest ranked Asian team defeated Canada and African and Sydney Olympic champion Cameroon and drew with Brazil in the group matches, beat Australia in the semi-final, and then lost only to world champion France.

Japan and Australia have progressed because of good organisation and administration. Against this, Indian football administration stands out like a sore thumb.

True, the All-India Football Federation, the state and district associations have made sporadic efforts to bring some order in the conduct of our football. Like participation in a maximum of seven tournaments outside its state by a team, limiting the number of replays, and introducing tie-breakers to ensure schedules are maintained so as not to disrupt other events. Of late, the AIFF has even forced organisers to complete their events in a fortnight.

All these measures have failed abysmally. Instead of streamlining our organisation, they have virtually killed our football. Like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because flights of fancy, rather than hard, cold reason backed by experience and visualisation, have marked the regulations and their amendments.

Take the Federation Cup. Introduced by the late A. T. Vijayarangam to raise money for clubs and players, it is not known if in over two decades it has achieved these targets. And tinkering with it, like running it at several venues and over a prolonged period, has killed the goose that laid golden eggs at least for the organisers. Now there is a move to revert to the format of the earlier years.

From the sixties to the early eighties on the South India circuit more in Kerala and Tamil Nadu than in Andhra and Karnataka, tournament fixtures were known more by word of mouth than through the sanctity of a printed draw. This contributed to a circus and its several legs. The organisers and the national body's knee- jerk reactions and remedies brought short-term relief. Rather swept troublesome issues under the carpet, where they festered to burst into predictable sores.

Now comes the announcement from the Mumbai District Football Association that two teams, Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers and Bombay Customs, will be spared relegation from the local super division as they would strengthen themselves by recruiting players. A dangerous precedent, as a relegated team would not have to win its way back but would only have to recruit players and be better equipped for the coming season.

Three years back, the WIFA had done one better. It had included in the super division a new team, Bengal Mumbai Football Club, which sort of temporarily justified its inclusion by winning the super division league as also the Rovers Cup. Last year BMFCs results and financial troubles gave rise to murmurs that one swallow does not make a summer. Far worse, they made for pondering over the effectiveness and wisdom of having a weathercock as overall administration.

It is time that our football administration takes a leaf out of its more stable and advanced counterparts elsewhere in the world, and frames rules after much thinking and sticks to them.

K. BHASKARAN

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