Beset by problems, India strives for a place in football

By Hugo Barcia

New Delhi, Jan 26 (EFE).- Insufficient investment, a lack of competitive atmosphere, and strict laws have prevented the growth of football in India, a country of some 1.4 billion people, which was eliminated from the ongoing Asian Cup in the group stage after failing to score a goal in three games.

“I’m not a magician,” said former Croatian footballer and Indian coach Igor Stimac on Tuesday, responding to his team’s 0-1 defeat against Syria that led to their elimination from the tournament in Qatar, referring once again to the weak structure of Indian football.

Only “development, coaches, investment, structure competitions, long term plans, will take us forward,” he admitted when questioned by the media.

Except for the runners-up position in the 1964 Asian Cup, the country has not achieved success in the Asian tournament, where it has participated five times, fallen in the group stage on four occasions, and has never participated in the FIFA World Cup.

Currently, the Indian men’s team is ranked 102nd in the FIFA rankings among 210 countries, while the women’s team is ranked 65th out of 192 countries.

The low ranking fuels the criticism that after each elimination, the coach, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and the players receive from Indian fans, who demand superior results from a team made up of footballers entirely from the country’s weak local league.

The Indian authorities are frequently accused of hiding the truth from fans by scheduling practice matches against teams of similar or lesser caliber to save themselves from potential humiliation and thus prevent India from rubbing shoulders with the strongest teams on the continent.

“We in India are not living in the real world… we have to decide whether we want to play in India and be happy or (go out and) try to compete with the rest of the world,” Stimac said in an interview in July with local newspaper The Times of India, in which he criticized the AIFF’s lack of action to change course.

The Indian men’s team played 16 games in 2023, recorded 10 wins and two draws, and scored 22 goals, only to remain scoreless when it mattered most, going out of the Asian Cup without hitting the net once.

In those 16 matches, only two of its opponents were among the top 10 ranked teams in Asia, where India is placed 18th, and India lost both, one in penalties.

The Indian law that prevents dual nationality appears to be a disadvantage.

Unlike some other countries, the law denies India a chance to call up players who are of Indian origin but were born elsewhere.

AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey recently revealed in an interview with the Indian agency PTI that they had a list of 24 potentially selectable footballers of Indian origin but were exploring how they could call them “within the framework of the Central government’s rules.”

Although he did not give any names, several players who meet this condition include midfielder Sarpreet Singh of German second division side Hansa Rostock, forward Manprit Sarkaria of Austrian Bundesliga side Sturm Graz, and central defender Danny Bath of English second division side Norwich City.

The lack of investment that grassroots football receives in India is evidenced by the fact that the country, which is widely dominated by cricket, has just 200,000 registered players, according to AIFF.

New Delhi Football Association president Anuj Gupta told EFE that this situation had begun to change in the past decade, especially since the creation of the Indian Super League in 2014, which increased the flow of money.

“A lot more money has been pumped in. The Indian footballers, coaches, staff, the whole ecosystem earn more money. And it has become more inspirational because now the youth players know that if they do well, they can earn a lot of money, so the parents also see that if you are able to play in the Super League there is a future,” said Gupta.

While this is still insufficient to fully utilize the youth potential, more competitive games are necessary to instill the winning mentality in the future generation that they currently lack, he added.

“Unless we don’t start performing in under 17 and under 20, miracles won’t happen,” said Gupta.

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