FIFA ban lifted, now what about Indian football? Article by SR Suryanarayan

TThe lifting of AIFF’s suspension by FIFA must have been a sigh of relief for everyone, including the legion of fans in the country. The suspension came on the day India celebrated its 75th year of Independence. Surely, this was a ‘gift’, which Indian football could have done without. It is true that the ban lasted only about ten days, but by then all the issues that had upset FIFA had been resolved and the way was clear. An urgent reason for this relief must have been the U-17 Women’s World Cup, which had been assigned to India and was due to take place in October this year. It is a matter of prestige for the Government, which has given its support to the event, having signed all the financial and other requirements set by FIFA.

But the length of the ban, short as it was, was enough to underscore how embarrassing it had been for India. None reflected the shock of the moment as poignantly as 92-year-old Tulsidas Balram, the last surviving hero of India’s 1956 Olympic campaign. Reacting to news of the death of his then-teammate Samar Banerjee, Balram he said: “We were the last two surviving members of the Melbourne Olympics (squad). What’s the use of living now? See the worst days of Indian football,” referring to the ban.

On the other hand, in this brief period, none took the brunt of the punishment than Gokulam Kerala FC, the champions of the Indian women’s league, who were to participate in the AFC club championship in Uzbekistan. The team had even landed in Tashkent for this important match, but the players did not realize that they were in for a surprise. Upon first being welcomed, the team was told that they had been banned from competing as a result of FIFA’s action. With their heads held high, they had been contenders for an international title and with their heads lowered, they had to return for a foul they had never committed! The only consolation now is that other international commitments such as ATK Mohun Bagan’s participation in the AFC Cup, as well as the Indian team’s international friendlies against Vietnam and Singapore, are all set to resume next month.

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However, despite the quick action to restore the status quo, the scar will remain. In the 85 years since the AIFF was formed, the national team had a variable course of progress. From Asia’s best in the 1950s to a force to be reckoned with on the continent in the 1960s and even 1970s, the country’s standards (read ranking) may have dropped from there. They number around 104 now, but the sport is still loved by a legion of fans in the country. Why had even the AFC and FIFA long been talking about a “sleeping giant” when describing India? Only the giant didn’t get to wake up and challenge the others, instead officials pursued the ends that mattered to them, hijacking the country’s sporting interests and bringing it into a kind of disgrace that only seven other countries had suffered so far. . date! Indian football did not deserve this depressing loss.

The damage has already been done, and many top footballers past and present, as well as rising stars, will lament this happening, but as they say, the game must go on. That all this has happened at a time when there was a collective euphoria over India’s performance in the recent Common Wealth Games is something of an irony that Indian sports did not need. Indeed, Indian football has not lived up to expectations lately. What stands out even in these low-key settings is the work of Sunil Chhetri, considered one of the greatest footballers the country has ever produced. As the third top international goalscorer among active players behind sports greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Chhetri in his own way has done his part to keep the Indian flag high. It is a shame that the story of valor and achievements of their lion-hearted player is now placed alongside this sordid act of football administration in the annals of Indian football.

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So what does the future hold? Sure enough, fans in the country for now will be eagerly awaiting the U-17 Women’s World Cup. Having coached the men’s under-17 world cup five years ago and received accolades, the search is now on for another class act. As they say, the best way to forget the past is to make the present and the future something to talk about. Another chain of optimism is the kind of opinions emanating from previous footballers. Bhaichung Bhutia is one of those icons. The man needs no introduction. One of the best players of his time, one who draws the crowds for his brilliance on the pitch, Bhutia is also a strong contender for the top job in Indian football administration. The vibe from him has been particularly remarkable considering that reforms are what soccer in the country has been crying out for.

Bhutia believes, and many will surely agree with him on this, that the time has come to change the system and, in that sense, perhaps he thinks that FIFA’s action and subsequent change can be seen as wake-up calls. An administration that responds to the needs of the sport was the essence of his thinking. The former India captain and the first Indian to have played 100 games for the country, Bhutia knows a bit about making the decisions. He had shown that caliber on the soccer fields. Will he be able to exert the same influence in the administration? At the very least, he dreams big of one day wanting to see the Indian team qualify for the world cup on merit at senior and junior levels. Time will tell.

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