SAFF Cup: A new beginning or eventual descent into obscurity
They say every cloud has a silver lining. No other proverb in the world can currently describe the Indian national football scenario than the above one. After their rather dismal showing at the World Cup qualifiers last year, the Indian national football team retained a semblance of pride after beating Afghanistan in the SAFF Cup final 2-1, thereby starting the new year on a cheerful note. Even though it is a victory and a prominent one at that, there still is a dark cloud that hangs over the head of this team.
Through the years, the Indian Football team has won one or two odd tournaments only to falter at a level where the stakes are raised much higher, thereby curtailing all the momentum of their original tournament victory. In simple words, the Indian team lacks the consistency that all the other higher rated teams have. Forget powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and Italy, India can’t even measure up to Japan in terms of consistency and playing style. So while football enthusiasts everywhere will be hoping this victory might lead to bigger and better things and lead to the regeneration of Indian football, skeptics are not so sure. One can’t blame them given India’s track record in recent times.
In front of their home supporters in the recently concluded SAFF cup, India bulldozed through all opposition en route to finally beating Afghanistan 2-1 in the finals, the same team who beat India 2-0 in the 2013 edition of the tournament. Hopefully, this is the proverbial baby steps that were required for India to evolve into the mythic powerhouse it once was in Asian football. But there is always the fear of stumbling which will turn all the cheers into a chorus of vitriolic hatred or even worse, indifference.
In Cricket, when the national team loses everyone collectively loses their mind and blames everyone from the selectors to the players to the umpires but often the Indian football team losses are taken with a less than passionate outburst. That is the indifference that threatens to engulf the whole sport in India if we are not careful. After a loss, the supporters don’t have an angry outburst but rather they seem to resign with the feeling that nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Everyone who are celebrating the SAFF Cup victory now, will in a month’s time forget all about it if India can’t capitalise on the momentum. We have been in this exact moment countless times before only to go back to square one.
A concrete example of their inconsistency was revealed in the SAFF Cup tournament only. In the final match, it was hard to believe that this was the same Indian defence that played the semi-finals against Maldives. The last time around, the back four were shaky and gave away two goals for Maldives to come back in the match but on the night of the final, the back four were impenetrable. Despite Afghanistan’s fearsome goal scoring habits, India just conceded one goal. A team whose form keeps changing varying from opponent to opponent may not be the team that most people would bet on, but giving credit where credit is due, the Indian team were fantastic in their final effort to lift the SAFF Cup for the 7th time.
Before the SAFF Cup, the form of the Indian team was worse than shambolic. In their last 8 World Cup qualifiers India had won only one, drawn 2 and lost 5. They need to carry forward the recent spate of good form and at least, put up a fight against Iran and Turkmenistan in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. The hope of getting to Russia is already up in smoke but the team should, at least, salvage some pride in the remaining qualifying matches.
Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri, a war-ravaged veteran knows first-hand what it is to feel on top of the world at one moment and to be brought down in another. He issued a warning to his the team after the monumental win and urged them to build on their form. “When you lose, you’re brought down and a lot of negative things are said,” Chhetri said. “The SAFF Cup is an important tournament but a lot of people are saying it’s not the World Cup, which it’s not.” These negative comments and skeptical things will continue to haunt India if they do not take advantage of this victory.
Everywhere, people will be questioning their heart and resilience after one bad game because as history has taught us, sports fanatics are never ever truly satisfied. India still has a long way to go till they can be considered as a footballing super power. With the advent of the ISL, everyone thought that this was the awakening of the long-slumbering giant but as we have seen since its inception, Indian football is standing at the exact same place before the ISL. It would be safe to say that Indian football has seen more ups and downs in the last 15 years than a rollercoaster.
Every high point was preceded by great expectation, and followed by a dip of incredible magnitude without any exhilaration, before rising again with a tide of hope. The jury on the long term success of this tournament is still out. Many top India footballers, including the iconic Bhaichung Bhutia, feel the I-League should be preserved and protected if Indian football has to survive. Their fear is ISL will soon become a haven for unwanted European stars. With six overseas players and five Indians in a line-up how is it going to help Indian football, they ask. This is a rather pertinent question to ask, the answer to which lies three to four years down the line.
While the ISL catapulted Indian footballers into Indian households through its franchisee system, I-League clubs were left to die. Bharat FC, Pune FC and Royal Wahingdoh have all pulled out of the 2016 season which is a rather worrying sign for Indian football in general. Now the ball is in the team’s court. They can build on this victory and immortalise themselves acting as an inspiration to the next generation of Indian players or this victory will fade in the sands of time, as a forgotten memory.