Intrinsically fused to British manacles for the entirety of their modern history, sporting, and even wider cultural, forays on the Indian subcontinent are only further overshadowed by the remnants of colonialism with the fruitful presence of Londoner Stephen Constantine as the man at the helm of perpetually disregarded Blue Tigers; the Indian senior men’s national football team.
The purported societal adversity of the sport in appealing to a population far exceeding a strength of 1.2 billion – each schooled on nothing but the pious status of cricket, and far surpassing their English derivatives in these increasingly lucrative exploits – only further presents an aptly poetic rhetoric to the tale. If one were to accept the converse perception of the flourishing of Chinese football under the apparently soccer-advocating President Xi Jingping’s patronage through unilateral sporting alliances, the enlistment of state-fostered subsidiaries to bankroll club evolution and vast investment in grand training complexes, the trading fortunes of the seemingly alien geopolitical powerhouses could siphon handily into general cultural preconceptions.
Indeed, while the Indian Super League is limited to Robbie Keane, Miku, Wes Brown, Dimitar Berbatov, André Bikey and Ryan Taylor in its calibre of notable playing guests from the past twelve months, their counterparts on the Orient can boast at the Langfang-based Hebei China Fortune FC alone Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Mascherano, Hernanes and Gervinho, while Messrs Witsel, Pato, Hulk, Ramires, Oscar, Obi Mikel and most recently Ferreira Carrasco and Gaitán cultivate depth from further afield; at no short expense, either. Evidently, financial firepower construes a monumental disparity between the entities, and is further asserted in performance on the continental stage, where in the past five seasons India has sent in each term a single representative, eliminated at the First Preliminary (2014, 2015), Second Preliminary (2016, 2017) and Play-off (2018) stages of the AFC Champions League, while the Chinese have – aside from Shanghai Shenhua’s play-off defeat to Brisbane Roar in 2017 – forced four sides into each term’s group stage without fault, and even lifted the trophy through Luis Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015.
This is a pattern that extends far back beyond the inception of either concurrent franchise-professing league structure, however. Feeding into the rhetoric of China’s more established global political and economic presence, the aforementioned achievements represent a relatively agreeable competitive trend; as such, President Xi’s actions, in attempting to reinforce, and even extend, pre-existing superiority are entirely admirable as an ambitious geopolitical economical move typical of a rapidly progressing capitalist society.
As a Marcello Lippi-helmed Lóng zhī (龙之 or Dragon’s Team) side host Wales, the Czech Republic and Uruguay in the subtropical, environmentally-conscious southern resort of Nanning, while Constantine’s outfit host Kyrgyzstan in the final outing of an arduous qualification phase for the 2019 Asian Cup that began on the banks of mighty Brahmaputra River back in March 2015, the divide, internationally also, could not be more evident. And yet when the unassuming (bald, bespectacled and physically slight) Englishman dubbed ‘football’s most-travelled manager’ – after spells at the Nepalese, Malawian, Sudanese and Rwandan national teams and in Cyprus’ top two divisions with his young family – led the culturally unparalleled state into action against Nepal over three years ago, they were ranked 171st in the FIFA World Rankings. Today, they stand joint-99th, and surely set to rise if they overcome the Kyrgyz and seal top spot in the Third Round Group A – perhaps an eventuality never readily apparent when floundering in the Second Round, which also served as a pre-qualifier to the final Asian World Cup group battles, to finish bottom even below miniscule Guam and barren Turkmenistan, and having to defeat Laos in a play-off to even account for Third Round propagation.
While the defeat of minnows Macau, a politically splintered Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan cannot be rationally brandished as a resounding moral victory for the stature of domestic divisional reforms, India will with this last-chance qualification ensure representation at only their fourth Asian Cup. A stage where they have secured only two victories before – both at the 1964 tournament, where representing the Western Zone in a limited field of just four nations after all three qualifying opponents Ceylon, Afghanistan and Iran withdrew to leave an open path, they finished second to hosts Israel – it has proven unforgiving ground even during what is generally referred to as the ‘Golden Era’ in the 1950s and ‘60s, when 1964 represented the sole appearance of a side that were ousted from a bronze in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics’ third-fourth play-off by Bulgaria and been crowned champions at both the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games. All this, after in 1950 they would have competed at the Brazilian World Cup were it not for the extortionate travel costs that were insurmountable for a nation only recently emerging from colonial rule, and not, as urban myth states, due to the fact players would refuse on cultural grounds to play with boots, as opposed to barefooted.
Syed Abdul Rahim, a Hyderabad native, had masterminded this flurry of as-yet unrivalled national prowess, but tragically succumbed to cancer at the age of just 53 – his work uncompleted – in June 1963, leaving Englishman Harry Wright, who after a goalkeeping career spent in close proximity to his London birthplace either side of WW2 had been coaching the nation’s youth sides, to pick up the reins, but never to equal the feats of a figure so revered his techniques were allegedly employed in Brazilian youth coaching of the 1960s. With Wright moving on after the 1964 finals, an era was felled; internal stability never recovering while neighbours atoned for prior defeats and consolidated their positions. Even the instalment of P.K. Banerjee could not salvage the outfit, with the 82-time-capped veteran of each successful Rahim campaign reinstating many principles of two decades prior when taking charge in 1972 and earning an eventual nine years to fulfil his ambitions but failing to even reproduce the bronze medal-winning result of a Communist-boycotted 1970 Asian Games.
While the Iranian Revolution handed democratic power back to the general population, Mao Zedong’s regime culminated in China and the increasingly technologically-innovative and American-sponsored Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Malaysians and Singaporeans began to flourish economically, India was left behind in a volatile 1970s; never truly trusted for its highly independent streak, and untameable for its vast geographical and demographic mass. Nonetheless, seven further managerial tenures would follow in the 1980s for the Blue Tigers, including Banerjee returning on a temporary deal in 1985 and a quartet of European stewards in Joe Kinnear, Geordie Bob Bootland – who by a peculiar twist of fate had arrived in the nation five years before his appointment merely to meet his future wife’s parents but been enticed by the Goa side Dempo S.C. – gilded Yugoslav journeyman Milovan Ćirić and ex-Hungarian international goalkeeper József Gelei, with none significantly restoring stability.
Inevitably retreating to indigenous candidates after the similarly barren tenures of former Czechoslovak international and North Yemen boss Jiří Pešek and the controversial Uzbek Rustam Akramov, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) had also evidently exasperated its means of ingenuity; of the next five tenures from 1997 to 2006, the repeated turns of former national team captain Syed Nayeemuddin and Sukhwinder Singh were interspersed only by what would later become just Constantine’s first tenure. As the latter duo completed the longest residence of the post since Banerjee’s era by each staying for three years, all three managers saw merited success, at least, in the newly-established South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup, with victories in 1997, ’99 and 2005. Nonetheless, this was a stage on which they would have been wholly demoralised had they not produced the goods; Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the widely overachieving Maldives the only realistic competition to their demographic and economic overhang in this largely football-averse geographical subdivision. Similar, indeed, was the case in the 2003 Afro-Asian Games as Constantine’s squad won silver behind the Uzbekistan under-21s, and so would the 2006-formed AFC Challenge Cup prove, with what the AFC define as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations supposedly exempt to foster the development of ‘emerging associations’ with little footballing history, but in fact often granted access as the hosting Indians were in a victorious 2008 campaign.
As the tale of muted accomplishment persists to this very day, the institutional rhetoric has seldom deviated. With regime change in the early 2000s, for example, there also came the influx of formative inspirations – chief among them diminutive Secunderabad-born marksman Sunil Chhetri, who has since led the nation’s cause for 13 years with the same joyful innocence etched across his expression each time he adds to his hefty goalscoring tally. His is a career with the Blue Tigers that has experienced the tenures of seven different management teams – added to in the past decade by the leading I-League helmsman in the Portuguese-Indian Armando Colaco, English journeyman Bob Houghton, Dutchman Wim Koevermans and Goa-derived former national assistant manager Savio Medeira – in doing so transcended the sport and, while retreating from short-lived spells in both America and Portugal to consistently undermine the state of competition with his emphatic scoring records, provided an encapsulating message about the state of modern Indian society.
The subsidiary fleet of the nation’s domestic programme – the I-League, or former National League – is, perhaps enfeebling the monied elite, still where seven of Constantine’s last 48 representatives (capped or not) currently stem; all but one, pointedly, from the Kolkata-based East Bengal. To maintain a coherent national framework, a decision presumably must be settled upon, with Constantine the chief present jury, as to what priority the divisions must receive, given they are officially on an equal pedestal in the Indian pyramid, and are set to gradually merge in coming terms. While the I-League is, at this stage, the more constitutionally correct – subject to relegation and promotion – the Super League behemoth, seemingly with the sole intention to protect the finances of their valued Bollywood, cricketing and more reclusively multinational enterprise managing gentry, operates a system annulled of such perils. Such, understandably, are the inevitable challenges of appeasing a society so intrinsically tied to celebrity status in order to potentially reform the nation’s footballing hopes.
In order to muscle in on the hegemony of cricket, and even subsequent spectator sports such as kabaddi and wrestling, the popular participation forms of hockey and badminton and gentrified travails of tennis, golf and snooker, football must indeed appeal to the masses as an infallible commercial product. No route is more influential in forcing this than televisual exposure, yet it is also an approach that has found repeated hitches in the nation, where technology and law is in its infancy as to the ability of private enterprises to broadcast from less developed venues through state broadcasting agency Prasar Bharati.
It is not merely the exposure alone that will guarantee the continuing progression of the sport, though. Those in positions of commercial influence must work closely with coaching and administrative powers to cultivate personalities competing both for Constantine, or his successor, and in either the I-League or Super League. Here is the land where Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sunil Gavaskar and so forth before them, have been hailed as relative divine apparitions gracing patriots with their mercurial talents, and risen above the predominating class system that remains – remorsefully, from a Western perspective – perpetuated across working society.
Achieving the popularity now perhaps regarded as inconceivable is, just as this conclusion would suggest – not easy – however. Appeal must be first extended, geographically, beyond what currently appears dominated by the northeast states, both in West Bengal and east of the Bangladeshi border. In terms of I-League action, this region is fertile ground; midway through a 15-year sponsorship agreement with the joint venture of India’s most profitable private enterprise Reliance Industries and the U.S sports management company International Management Group (IMG), two of the seven sides since crowned champions have hailed from the traditionally less developed region in Kolkata’s 128-year-old, and formerly independence-aspiring, outfit Mohun Bagan and the Mizoram state’s Aizawl FC. Far more, in all truthfulness, was however expected of the IMG-Reliance partnership – signed by the AIFF with the ambition of promoting both the I-League and Super League, and potentially to bring forth domestic unification – since its 2010 inception. The formation of the Indian Professional Football Club Association (IPFCA) in March 2012 only condemned this unrest, with administrative promises seemingly unfulfilled as all but two constituent clubs – one of being those the AIFF representative outfit Pailan Arrows – distanced themselves from the ruinous establishment and threatened total resignation from the league before being conspicuously sanctioned and disbanded (under the 1960 Societies Act) only two meetings unattended by the ambivalent AIFF and three months later.
Securing a stable following in the increasingly gentrified New Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa and Mumbai remains a challenging task on many fronts. Each being sprawling cities with increasingly lucrative construction and trading markets, the ability to even invest in the development of training facilities, and sites of sufficient quality to rival the state-funded elite-level complexes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and perhaps even Riyadh, becomes an increasingly distant possibility. Quite simply, beyond the imperfect Super League concept, the AIFF must convince those in positions of influence in these major conurbations that this is first a financially worthwhile, and secondly a repute-bolstering, cause in which to see long-term fruition. Struggles to progress the I-League, and the high hopes as yet unrecognised by the Super League, do little to convince such pivotal individuals, however.
Efficiency must also be imposed on each league, not to mention some common sense. While clubs in the I-League are still competing to virtually meaningless ends, with the AIFF forcibly impounding the running profits of the division to invest in what appears a series of intangible causes as of this stage, and those in the Super-League are yet to feel the fruition of promises to recreate the ever-progressing action of the MLS in America, fans have very few reasons to be truly satisfied with ongoing events. Bureaucracy, a concern falsely typical of the acute capitalism of Western Europe, has fatally afflicted the Indian system, with few tangible alternatives yet in the realms of possibility. Indeed, much hinges on the ability of the bondage of masses to challenge the established social order of a perpetually reputation-reliant nation; a vicious circle that features an aspirational footballing industry as its dissenting victim. Such, however, are the perils of attempting to tame a commercial product relinquished from its colonial, and later independence-revelling, past.
This phase of professionalisation, though ridding the sport of its formative values, has proven paramount to this societal self-promotion, with all it entails still yet to be fully realised. While the early 2010s delivered promise through a first Asian Cup appearance in 27 years, the transfer of Chhetri to MLS outfit Kansas City Wizards and the trials of fellow talents in forward Jeje Lalpekhula and goalkeepers Subrata Pal and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at Rangers, RB Leipzig and Wigan (then managed by Roberto Martinez) respectively – after which the latter duo moved to the Danish outfit Vestsjælland (only a year later unfortunately dissolved) and the Norwegians Stabæk – the protraction of promise on European shores was merely temporary. Each has since returned, and to the Super League, where their expectations of a professional sporting outfit have been indulged by foreign climes, but their experience hardly fostered from temporary excursions. Following only the prior overseas employment of 1930s winger Mohammed Salim – a notoriously reclusive figure, highly praised in his mere two appearances for Celtic, who sailed back after experiencing homesickness – and former talisman Bhaichung Bhutia, who in a spell with Bury at the turn of the millennium was hindered both by injury and the Manchester club’s financial implosion, it is evident that these exports were naïve in their expectations, and focused more on commercial profit of a debate-generating niche than bilateral and mutually beneficial footballing evolution.
Perhaps cynicism, to a degree, has to be removed from the detailing of these events. This is, after all, an industry, as aforementioned, still in its commercial infancy and one that has found a distinct imbalance in the distribution of finances, the eternally pivotal factor to any functioning establishment. See these endorsements expire, as Mumbai’s Mahindra United and the northern state of Punjab’s Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club (JCTFC) found out to their own cost as tangible I-League constituents, and existence is a commodity quickly rendered impossible. Stability has since been aided since their joint 2010 dissolutions – the latter even reforming three years later – but for most clubs, even amidst sold-out league fixtures at the 85,000-capacity Salt Lake, or Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, Stadium and the construction of sites such as the ‘New Bangalore Football Stadium’ (where, perhaps embarrassingly, construction was scheduled to be completed in time for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, but remains today unfinished), profitability is far from guaranteed. Inefficiency is a luxury they certainly cannot yet afford.
Aside from the security of clubs, ensuring player development first professes the values of continuity and stability and later provides a generation that can indeed compete on equal terms with the rapidly diminishing abilities of Berbatov et al., is a task at the forefront of AIFF philosophy. So much so, in fact, that at the time of the aforementioned Under-17 World Cup, two-thirds of the Indian squad consisted of players from the under-18 AIFF Elite Academy squad, and all members of the 21-man contingent – aside from the Toronto-based Sunny Dhaliwal, U.S Soccer Development Academy inductee Namit Deshpande, the steadfast Minerva Punjab-bound Mohammad Shahjahan and, most pointedly, ATK, and thus Super League-revelling 17-year-old Komal Thatal – have since gone on to be promoted to the specially reformed Indian (previously Pailan, during its 2010-13 inception) Arrows I-League outfit, where their coach at the tournament – the Lisbon-born 64-year-old Luís Norton de Matos – also resides. There are few questions of the viability of this approach – fostering talent, that is, on the highest stage of reasonable domestic competition – and certainly being seen to counter the lack of patriotic Super League representation, yet the youth frameworks must surely not rely solely on AIFF action alone. Regardless, there is no shirking the fact that youth is a convenient afterthought, devoid of immediately profit, for the vast majority of investors as yet convinced to enter the sport; most with a limited prior exposure to its trials and tribulations.
Only from this form of stability can the Indian establishment fathom relevant progression on either the continental or international landscape. The past decade has undoubtedly seen the national structure evolve like never before in the era of Asian professionalism, and the AIFF, though embattled, has learned to strike while the iron is hot; while seizing on its outstanding hosting credentials to encourage the formative interactions of a population almost unrivalled in its potential ability with the sport, establishing ambition from what was previously perceived as a stagnant base. Though the import, chiefly of Europeans – a dual-pronged attack, given their pre-existing skills far above that of the native foundation, and also their news-worthy appeal back in regions of origin, which may potentially act as an invaluable tool in provoking the participation of a notoriously stubborn diaspora – has been relied upon to stimulate this growth, at such a desperate stage it has not necessarily proven a hindrance to indigenous qualities, and may in fact prove a pivotal long-term benefit. Theirs is an ever-changing, and ever-evolving tale that can never again repeat the missteps of their past; prudent administration, to an extent, has seen them this far at least. Prolonging, and indeed exceeding, this encouraging present circumstance is the next task positioned to those in the relevant seats of power – whether they can manipulate the volatile inevitabilities of domestic competition, bring onside the financiers, players and fans alike and form a cohesive total structure will define any distinction from events that have preceded and repeatedly befallen their cause. This is a task where no easy route is tenable, and one that cannot be shirked if an incomparable nation is to forge an incomparable path to incomparable global glory. In the eternal words of José Mourinho, this is football heritage.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!