Why are Indian politicians jumping the football bandwagon?

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© Bengaluru FC FB page

Why are Indian politicians jumping the football bandwagon?

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Faizan Qadiri

10/27/2016

Indian football has been stuck in a rut of mediocrity for as long as I can remember. The Baichung-era gave us all hope but that faded away soon. There were, however, some people who always cared deeply about the state of football in India.

Being one, Bengaluru's epic win against Johor Darul Ta'zim thrilled me not just for the result and what it meant for football in India. It was also because, finally, an I-League club was getting some much-deserved attention. The week just seemed to be getting better as India gained 11 places in the FIFA rankings to land at 137 - their highest rank in 7 years. It felt too good to be true and as an Indian football fan, I was waiting for something to pull me down from cloud nine. And it did.

"If you can’t support us when we lose or draw, don’t support us when we win." Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said, for once and all, delineating the difference between the fans and the pretenders. It appears Indian political parties clearly belong to the second genre. Last week, they suddenly discovered a sport that they had never cared about for until then.

Sports Minister Vijay Goel's comical attempt to score some brownie-points in light of India's rise in the FIFA rankings reeked of desperation and in all honesty was laughable. Goel used Twitter to showcase his "pride" about India's recent success in the world's most popular sport.

The tweet is loosely translated as, "Through “Mission 11 Million” we aspire to connect 1.10 crore Indian youths with football; some good news for all the sports lovers." "Mission 11 million" is an initiative started by the AIFF to promote football among youngsters. The AIFF have not disclosed their action plan for the policy, but according to Abhishek Yadav, who heads the scouting programme, "The idea is to increase the talent pool." - to inspire more youngsters to take up the sport and provide coaching at the grassroot level.

The first thing that struck me is that India has only some 3,000-odd certified coaches. The numbers 3,000 and 11 million just don't add up - if they don't magically create coaches soon, one coach will have the responsibility to train 3,500 kids.

Getting children into the sport is easy, but how do you get adults to take these courses and get them into the system as well. China plans to build around 70,000 grounds around their country by 2020. Would the Indian government take a similar initiative? I personally doubt that.

Next up was Goel's attempt at glory through the FIFA U-17 Cup. “Kochi and Navi Mumbai have been given a green signal to host the 2017 FIFA U-17 Football World Cup," reads the text on the image. Is Mr. Goel trying to imply that this is an achievement? It makes absolutely no sense to celebrate the fact that we have been able to prepare a pitch worthy of a U-17 World Cup match.

The hypocrisy isn't restricted to just one party

 © Praful Patel FB page

However, using Indian football appears to be a habit that cuts across party lines and unites our netas, irrespective of their party affiliation.

As President of the AIFF, Honorable Congress MP and ex-aviation Minister Praful Patel has single-handedly “created a revolution” in Indian football. "Since taking over as the President of Indian Football’s Governing Body the virtuoso of Mr. Patel has enabled Indian Football to scale new heights," reads his description on the Federation's website.

But, the footballing fraternity of India are yet to be made aware of the new heights that he has taken Indian football to - considering the fact that we finished dead last in the World Cup Qualifiers winning just one match in a group consisting of lowly Guam and Turkmenistan.

Patel's only name to fame has been that he has overseen the creation and ascendancy of the Indian Super League and his push to promote it as India's premier league, pushing the already-established I-League down as a second-rate league.

To set things straight, I DO NOT HATE THE ISL. What they have done in the last two years is something that the I-League hasn't been able to do in 10 - attract people to the stadium. The ISL has its own problems, but scrapping one league for the other is not a sane move.

Patel's unwavering love for the ISL might see historic I-League clubs such as Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, who have have been operational for a longer period of time than English giants Chelsea, shut down permanently.

If the AIFF refuses to allow lower-league clubs to gain promotion to the ISL, that might just be the final nail in Indian football's coffin - we will never get a story as romantic as the Leicester fairytale. On the other hand, if the ISL is shut down, the huge fanbase they have created over such a short while might never follow the sport that I love again.

 © BRICS FB

PM Narendra Modi has also been vocal about India trying to make it on the world stage. "Unfortunately, over the decades we have slipped to the lowest rungs. Today our ranking in FIFA is so low that I feel reluctant even to mention it," Modi told Reuters. During the BRICS' tournament, he even invited the team captains to meet the various heads of states, but while one has to admit that it's important to raise awareness about the sport, nothing concrete has yet happened to nurture the sport.

It appears this is what football has become now - yet another platform where political parties can push their own agendas and try to score points. If they do really care about Indian football, it's time to take a stand and come up with a legitimate solution to solve Indian football's biggest problem.

That is why this Bengaluru win is a watershed moment for Indian football. It is the first time after a long when the entire nation came together to feel pride in the beautiful game.

They have proved that if a club is run professional, Indian clubs can do wonders even with decent amounts of investment. They followed the roadmap set by major European clubs of hiring a foreign manager and attracting the best players in the country (cue Bayern Munich and Manchester United). This is what should have been done with all Indian clubs instead of starting a breakaway league.

China has gone down that road, and has attracted some top-notch talent to its shores at their very prime - Graziano Pelle, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hulk and Ramirez are not washed up players who are at the end of their careers. Agreed their motivation was no doubt the enormous cash bags thrown at them, but China does come out on top of the bargain.

The ISL paradox

That is where the ISL's foreign player dalliance falls short of a vision.

Firstly, if they are made the top division, they would have to shell out more money to pay the foreign players if the duration of the league is increased. If stars like Forlan don't show up, the matches will only be greeted by empty seats.

Secondly, there is a limit on the number of foreign players they can bring in if they want to become India's premier league and representative in international tournaments.

According to Article 33.1 of the AFC regulations, "Each Participating Club may register three (3) non-citizen or foreign Participating players. Each Participating Club may register one (1) additional non-citizen or foreign Participating Player who has the nationality of a Member Association." FC Pune Cityhave nine foreign players in their squad for the ongoing season. That means that the club would have to let go of five of those players, and they might still end up spending more money to retain the rest for the proposed longer season.

Thirdly, it is easier currently for the ISL to attract major labeled stars because when all is said and done it's not a league it's a cup competition that lasts just three months. That 'Indyeah love' may fade once the stars are asked to stay over for more than half a year.

Lastly, FIFA and football are by no means clean but even Sepp Blatter and Gianni Infantino have called I-League the official league of the country, the latter doing it in he presence of Praful Patel. So if even FIFA realizes that the ISL is not the way forward for Indian Football, how naive are we to believe that it will lead us to the promised land?

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