Just over a month ago, we all witnessed a video message from Sunil Chhetri, the captain of the Indian football team making a heartfelt request to the rest of the country, and in particular, the football followers in the country. A simple request to show some more support for the football team, simply by showing up at the stadium and cheering for the team as they took on Kenya, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei in the Intercontinental Cup. This message was just the wake up call we needed to understand how we had betrayed our football team over the years.
What followed was nothing short of spectacular. India’s next three matches, including the final, were played inside stadiums packed with fans cheering for the team. Most notably the Blue Pilgrims, who were chanting their lungs out, as India went on to win the tournament. It seemed like the captain’s message had gotten through to the country’s football fanatics. It seemed like Indian football was finally about to receive the support it had needed for years. It seemed like the start of something special for the sport in the country. And with the World Cup fever gripping the nation, some of us probably even dared to dream of watching India play at the FIFA World Cup some time in the future, with Sunil Chhetri’s message being a key part of the story of India’s rise in football.
The reality of Indian football, however, isn’t as romantic as the dream. Not even remotely close. With the 2018 FIFA World Cup as exciting as it is, you may be forgiven for missing out on the IOA’s announcement last Sunday, saying it would not be sending the Indian football team to participate in the Asian Games. Suddenly, the dream was shattered. And unsurprisingly, it was the start of another controversy, with both, the AIFF and football fans in the country now questioning the IOA’s decision.
While a country united in its support for its football team and its players hoping for a move forward, a decision like this does exactly the opposite. What was even more painful than the decision itself was the manner of its announcement.
“Guidelines are in place and we are strictly following them. The football team hasn’t done well internationally and had no chance of winning medals. So there was no point sending them for the Games,” a senior IOA official said. “We are evolving as a sporting nation. In many sports, we are competing for gold medals. In such a scenario, we shouldn’t send a team merely to compete.” Is labeling players as ‘passengers’ who stand no chance of winning really the ideal way to describe the players who have worked their socks off over the years to see the kind of improvement we have in recent years?
To be fair, there is a certain truth to IOA’s statement. Historically, our football team hasn’t done well in the Asian Games. But is stopping the team from participating on an international stage the right step to fix the problem we are facing? Or is it just feeding into an endless loop that we all want to break?
While the IOA maintains that the decision was made based on the guidelines it has set, allowing the teams which have achieved a ranking of at least 8th among the competing nations to participate in the Asian Games, it completely disregards the progress Indian football has made in the last three years. Which is precisely the point AIFF tries to make. “Football is easily the most competitive sport in the world. It’s not easy to be in top eight of the continent and this decision taken by the IOA completely ignores the progress made in the recent years.” an AIFF official said.
The IOA’s decision raises a lot of questions and is an interesting point of debate among the country’s sports enthusiasts. Many of whom disagree with the decision, but also some who see this decision as a justified, logical one. Does the IOA understand the sport well enough to take key decisions like preventing the team from going to the Asian Games? And just months before the team is about to participate in the 2019 AFC Asia Cup? If it does, should there be a question asked to the IOA as to why we have seen extremely limited progress of sports in the country? Should we be asking why their guidelines are so full of loopholes, lowering the bar to allow certain sports to participate while stopping certain others?
And if it does not understand the game, should they really be in charge of key decisions for the sport? While the sports federations in the country are largely funded by the government, is it time to get more private investors into these sports? People who can understand sports better and are competent enough to take decisions that favour their growth. And not decisions based on certain guidelines or transactional values. And I’m not just talking about football here.
Granted there are organizations like the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports who have in recent years who have taken drastic steps in the right direction to promote several sports in the country, right at the grassroot levels. But as good as these efforts are, it will probably be years before we can see their results. But is it fair to stop teams from participating in an international tournament simply because the odds are against them? If it is, then by that logic, the FIFA World Cup should not have started with the 32 teams as it originally did. Rather, it should have started with only a handful of teams who were considered the favorites, most of whom are already out of the tournament.
Some might argue that my thoughts are based purely on emotion and my passion for the sport. Yes, they are. You play a sport and you support your team in a sport because you are passionate about it. Ask any footballer why he plays the game. Or any kid who saves his allowance, just so he can buy a jersey of the team he supports. Or any supporter why he spends so much time and money to travel and buy match tickets just to watch his team play, even on a cold rainy evening. And you’ll see how much passion and love football, or any other sport generates among its ardent followers. You do not look for any returns when your team wins. More importantly, you do not abandon them when they lose. Unless you are the IOA of course.
Some might even argue that going to the Asian Games and losing would be a disgrace to Indian football. To which I ask, which part of this decision from the IOA was a graceful one? Was it the decision to not send the football team to compete? Or was it the humiliating manner of the announcement? Perhaps it was labelling the players as ‘passengers’?
There can be endless arguments on a topic such as this, with points to be made on both sides. And I’d love to hear your opinion on this decision as well. Leave your thoughts in the comments below and let me know what you think of IOA’s latest decision.