Thirty years ago , or even longer, football was one of the sports that attracted hundreds of people. With football were other sports like volleyball, table tennis, boxing and even hockey. Football was a sport that saw a surge – new stadium, foreign coaches and foreign players.
At that time, few people who got involved in sports got themselves a decent education. Education was a fringe subject and sports was compulsory.
Football started dipping from a high and the dip gathered momentum until it looked like the game had reached a dead end. Not just in Goa but India. The only difference being – the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Even today, the derby gets more crowds and is more intense than any match of the Indian Super league (ISL).
The dip in popularity started seeing a revival with the start of the Indian Super League (ISL). At first, veteran players from all over were roped in to draw the crowds back to the stadiums. People came to see football heroes and not really be witness to any brand of football.
Hundreds would come – with wife and kids- to get a glimpse of Zico or Roberto Carlos or Lucio or some other star who adorned ISL. Football then looked like a bubble, ready to burst as all involved in the game looked to be at sea. Fortunately, it was not.
I am not sure whether it was the ISL or whether it was FIFA granting the FIFA U17 hosting right to India that has brought about a change in football in India today. A change there is and one that holds lot of promise for the future.
When India began preparations for the World Cup it looked like the enthusiasm would peter after the World Cup. That India was preparing for a party to be witnessed by some in the world and the cleaners would take much energy after on.
A cleaning is taking place but a cleaning of the mind-set prevailing in football in India. India played creditably during the World Cup and the momentum has been maintained thereafter. And, this momentum has been kept by the All India football Federation (AIFF), whatever the conceptions one has.
Going back, years again, I remember the hue and cry when Kushal Das was being appointed secretary of AIFF. They were Goans in the fray who ridiculed his appointment claiming his knowledge of football was negligible. Fortunately for football in India , it is this same Kushal Das who rotates the clock hands of Indian football.
Many of us think football is coffee table talk. Few venture out to the ground to see what is happening. The football ground built in Benaulim or Utorda for the World Cup now hosts the India U-19 and India U-16 teams and the practise on display gives one hope that the good old days of football in Goa may no longer be a distant dream.
My belief in the path forward comes from the little time I have spent with India U-19 coach Floyd Pinto a few conversations with India U-16 coach Bibiano Fernandes and primarily the time spent watching the boys practising or playing.
Their story is simple. The AIFF has created a line of communication between youngsters and seniors and all go through a channel that is monitored by scouts and coaches of different academies all over the country. In this chain are four key players- Kushal Das, Abhishek Yadav, Bibaino Fernandes, Floyd Pinto and Stephen Constantine. Interestingly, one cannot be without the other and it is this strength that trickles down to the boys from where all the hope stems.
Such a system did not exist before. Previously many thought that India would be a power in football by organising matches or tournament. The emphasis was on organisation and not on player development or a school for youngsters to pass through, to keep India under football spotlight.
The shift from organisation to youth development is the shift that will see the other side of football in India.
That the shift is on the right track can be gauged by watching the boys who are now part of the India U-19 set up. They started young; they went through three different coaches and in the process have shown growth in not just their standard of play but their attitude towards life. This is the positivity of football that is being seen in India today.
A lot of that positive has come from Nicolai Adam and Luis Matos and a lot more in being carried forward by Floyd Pinto. Floyd not only talks clean football but thinks clean football. He understands that the basic of the game is about making the youngsters comfortable with the ball; feel happy to be with the ball. It all starts from here.
Football is not just about developing skill. Floyd knows that football can be seen beyond just a beautiful game if the beauty of each person’s mind is allowed to flower uninterrupted. “Let it flow,” he says. And then you will see how beautifully the ball rolls.
“There is synchronicity from top to bottom in football in India today and that is why I see no reason why football will once again be the sport that gets the maximum crowds to the stadium,” avers Floyd.
“A team may enjoy 80 per cent of possession and have the best of match statistics and yet at the end have a negative result. Football is about being able to score goals and this change in our players will come with a change in their thinking,” confides Floyd.
“Today the AIFF is giving boys born in 2003 the chance to travel abroad to play football; a chance to see and interact with kids of their age from other parts of the world. This is a massive exposure that will open their eyes to see how others evolve. It is through this system that we can restructure the football DNA in India,” believes Floyd.
Floyd will know best how he got into football. However, one thing is certain , he has a clear mind on how to help take football in India forward. There was a time when we compared or rather thought foreign coaches were better trained then our own. Floyd is breaking that conception. He knows what our boys lack and he knows their strengths. He knows the culture and he knows their habits. Floyd is adept in handling football professionally.
There was a time when many thought football in India would take a lot of time to catch up with the west. “Let us not look at the West when we have the whole of Asia to look at ourselves from,” quips Floyd.
Going by the way AIFF is tending football, India’s gap in Asia is shrinking. We are getting there. It is a matter of how fast and not the case of faster than the fastest. Slow and steady, the results will start to come.