The mention of Indian football raises eyebrows because of its inability to produce an internationally successful team. Since yesterday (5th August 2010) was my first live experience of watching an Indian football team play in an international competition, I do not qualify to point out the system’s loopholes and moreover I have never made an earnest attempt to understand the dynamics of Indian football set up. However after witnessing Shillong Lajong Football Club represent India at Manchester United Premier Cup 2010 (MUPC) , I had enough reasons to be convinced that though India may not qualify for 2014 FIFA world cup yet there lies hope for the future.
MUPC has been a regular fixture in the international football calendar since 1993 with able support from Nike and is held at Manchester United’s practice grounds in Carrington. This year the under 15 teams of various clubs in 43 nations competed in their respective country and the winners qualified for the zonal finals. The top 20 club teams booked their flight to Manchester to compete in the finals (The Indian winners have got direct entry into the finals since 2 years). India’s Shillong Lajong Football Club was slotted in group A and lost all the four group matches without scoring a single goal and conceded 15 goals. It will play its table positioning match today afternoon and will attempt to avoid the wooden spoon. Had results and statistics been the only measure for judging a team’s performance and in the process a country’s progress in a particular sport then this drubbing experience counts for little but the journey begins where the score line halts.
For long, Indian football was majorly restricted to Goa, Kerala and West Bengal and there were only a handful of clubs that were recognised nationally. Matters were in a state of shamble because no corporate was interested to engage itself in a relationship with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) because the bureaucratic system had made the parent body directionless. There has not been a major transitional change in the ground realities however Nike, india has taken the first giant step in building a process that could help the game penetrate into the grassroots among the wider segment of the society and in the process give the due recognition to this wonderful sport in the second most populous country in the years to come. By engaging more that 70 clubs across the country at the pre qualifying stage and 32 clubs in the finals of the MUPC country qualifying round, Nike India has sparked a football movement among the youngsters of the country who a few years back irrespective of their possessed talent were clueless about how the game would benefit them. Last year Salgaocar Sports Club represented India in the finals and this year the city of Shillong gained prominence in the world football map. This is a clear sign of how right intent and dedicated effort can create a platform for anyone in any corner of the world to gain global reputation in this boundary less environment.
Today after the match when I looked into the eyes of these young footballers, they were beaming with confidence and the grin on their face was that of happiness and satisfaction of having done something under the country’s banner at such a young age. At the age of 15 or less these players are highly spirited and too young to be saddened by the defeats. For them what matters is a chance to play the game that they love the most in an environment that their seniors would not have dreamt of in the past. Shillong Lajong FC may end up as the 20th ranked team of the tournament but the opportunity to have played a few matches in Europe and the exposure gained will remain with these skilled players for their entire life and if the administrators understand the significance of this movement that Nike, India has initiated then these moments of truths can be leveraged to take the campaign to an entirely new level. If there has to be a fairytale plot then in this decade, a few Indian names might figure in the starting line up of the premier European football clubs.
On 8th August, Shillong Lajong FC players will land in Mumbai followed by a 36 hours train journey to Guwahati and then another three hours on road in three Tata Sumos* to reach their home town. The tiredness of the journey will disappear in no time as the city will be waiting to ceremonially welcome its boys who have made the country proud and will remain as the only Indian football team to have played in an international tournament in the European continent in the year 2010.
This is the beginning.
*Tata Sumo – It is an Indian four wheeler with a seating capacity of 12.
6th August 2010
On 13th March 2010, NDTV had done a special 20 minutes programme on Shillong Lajong FC (http://www.ndtv.com/news/videos/video_player.php?id=1208811)
(Special thanks to Siddhant Narayan from Nike, India for having invited me to watch Shillong Lajong FC play in MUPC 2010)