India's brush with soccer is all set for a change

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Kolkata, Dec 22: Indian soccer was vigorously shaken and stirred, if not awakened, as 2007 bids adieu with the men in blue cornering glory and U-16s raising expectations of a soccer revival in the sub-continent.

If Indian national team raised visions of Sepp Blatter's 'sleeping giant' awakened with Nehru Cup victory before falling back to their predictable slipshod ways, the U-16s after their Asia Cup blitzkrieg left hope floating. All India Football Federation(AIFF) did what they have been doing over the past two years-- getting the people who matter to showcase Indian soccer and trying to add sheen to the game without thinking of the class. Thus FIFA President Joseph Blatter landed in India and called for reforms and greater professionalism in Indian football. On his first official visit to the country, Mr Blatter wished his presence will spark off the reconstruction process that would animate the ''sleeping giant'' the euphemism he used to term the humble status of Indian football in the world order.

But what it carried in its stride was a raking mullah of $1.4 million from FIFA, in addition to the $25,000 it already gets as part of the GOAL project every year.

Buoyed by the visit and in order to shed its rusty image, the AIFF rechristened National Football League (NFL), India's premier soccer tournament, to I-League. The league was proposed to improve the quality of football and stadia. But all that I-league had to offer was the same mediocrity of soccer, other than prominently pointing that the pulse of Indian soccer had shifted from Kolkata to Goa with teams like Dempo, Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa growing in stature.

Indian team under Englishman Bob Houghton was looking to improve its reputation after being handed out a pasting by Republic of Korea, DPR Korea and Iraq in their Beijing Olympic qualifiers.

Bob-the-builder as he is often called, had the mantra--play overseas and keep the players fresh.

The results showed as India trounced Cambodia six love and Kyrgyztan 3-0 before going down narrowly to Syria 2-3 in the group stages in Nehru Cup, a trophy which was itself making a comeback after two decades.

Then on August 29, it was time for the final and a surprise gift was awaiting for every Indian who was there to cheer for the men in blue. India took the field with the underdog's tag after their group league defeat against the West Asian rivals.

39 places up in the FIFA rankings, the Syrians never found it easy right from the start of the even match with Bob Houghton's strategy well planned. Indians played a good attacking game to thwart the rivals at every stage of the match. The Indians won 1-0 and the nation rose in raptures, festivity and hope.

India did move up 14 places in the FIFA ranking with this victory to 143 having collected 158 points. But that was it, as the World Cup qualifiers against Lebanon again cast a dampner on the resurgence mode with two defeats.

Amid all these rise and fall, hope and despair, another English coach worked relentlessly and silently with the juniors.

Chief junior and sub-junior coach Colin Toal is not expecting the Indian under-16 and under-19 colts to do a miracle and qualify for the AFC Cup under-17 and AFC Cup under-20 championships next year.

But he does have hope for us. He is selling a dream, we want to buy.

In the group league stages the U-16 boys displayed a brand of soccer that left several higher ranked countries stranded. The U-16s beat their Lebanon counterpart 3-0, Saudi Arabia 3-0, besides blanking Bhutan 4-0 and Sri Lanka 6-0 to emerge as the Group C leaders.

But the British coach has found a ray of hope with some of his 46 students, who can fit into Bob Houghton's dream of guiding Indian soccer to international standard. Houghton has constructed a height and weight project for the Indian senior squad where at least five to seven players must have to be above six feet in height.

But unfortunately, in the senior national team's journey from Olympic qualifiers to the Nehru Cup triumph, Houghton's efforts have not paid dividends.

But Toal's findings are going to bring hopes for the senior national coach in near future. Toal and his support-staff led by Bengal lads Sanjoy Sen (under-16), Mridul Banerjee (under-19), Tanumoy Bose (both under-16 and under-19) have already spotted seven to eight promising youth footballers among both under-16 and under-19 probables who are above six feet in height. And the performance of the boys in their recently concluded exposure trip to Germany has also impressed Toal.

With captain Baichung Bhutia, India's best football export till date, coming to the end of his career and none showing the capability to step into his shoes, the country will be left in wanting and hopefully Malaswamfela, Tanmoy Ghosh, Ralte Lalrindika or their likes would be providing succor.

So even as East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and company continue to bicker with the AIFF, IFA and among themselves for petty gains and the infrastructure don't show any remarkable improvement other than the AIFF Bhavan in the capital, a faint light of hope plays hide and seek with the football fate of the nation.


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