Sunil Chhetri: The Captain Of A Sinking Ship?

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Why can’t India’s second- biggest popular sports achieve anything on the international arena?

Everybody dismisses the US Soccer team every time it plays in an international competition. It then consistently goes on to get results against big names and shock traditionalists who can’t get to grips with the fact that the country that created baseball and American football is making strides in its “third sport” as well. Comeback victories against Germany and the Netherlands have made Jurgen Klinsmann’s men a force to be reckoned with. For the most part, this success is attributable to a high-quality national league and a consistent youth monitoring system.

No such luck for India. We’re ranked 141st in the world and we consistently struggle to draws and losses against opponents ranked lower than us. I remember watching India playing in the finals of the Nehru Cup thrice in Delhi and winning all three times, the third time against a third-string Cameroon side. India could beat Cameroon at one point of time, and I didn’t care so much about the poor technical game as much as I did about the heart and the drive India showed.

This was a team that wanted to win, and didn’t simply lose its head midway and wildly smack the ball out of play. A couple of factors play into this. Obviously, there’s poor infrastructure, and a lack of any iconic venues. Football pitches in India aren’t maintained properly, and often go into disuse after tournaments (heads up under- 17 World Cup organizers). Crowd support is abysmal during national team matches and surprisingly frenetic during matches between local “clubs” in Kerala and Goa. The Indian football team consistently employs a long-ball strategy and tries to punt the ball up to Robin Singh, who basically acts like a headless bear, not knowing what to do with the ball once he receives it. Eventually, after playing a game with poor touches, long balls and fouls, India concedes a goal.

After this point, things just become more frustrating, as player repeatedly take wildly off-target shots from range and miss. Against Guam, India played a toothless game with no drive. There’s no problem with losing to lower-ranked sides. It’s part of the game. But losing consistently, and making excuses about it, is a problem. Stephen Constantine bemoans the lack of good infrastructure and facilities, but he should have known that coming in. India simply plays like a school team. There’s no smart passing, no triangles, no significant off the ball movement. There’s just someone always looking for the punt up field and then there’s only that one person responsible on the pitch. There’s no problem with the people: millions love football and play it regularly.

The team, however, is a miserable representation of India’s infatuation with football. That’s because somehow, there’s a huge talent gap. There’s no proper monitoring of youth squads and state squads, and often young talents are simply lost down the line. Another major problem is football as a profession. People simply don’t believe that football is a viable profession in India. Since attendance except for some marquee games is low, clubs can’t afford to pay players large amounts regularly, and then all expectations simply disappear.

In the middle of all this is Sunil Chhetri. The next big man of Indian Football after Bhaichung, he’s scored 50 goals for India (the first player to do that in history), and consistently chips in with a goal or a spirited performance in most games. He lacks the support and frankly the tactics and game sense that is required to feed him consistently. He even scored in the dying seconds against Guam, but of course, that was irrelevant as well. We can only hope that there’s some serious hard work and effort put in by the team now. Ranking doesn’t matter, but when a national team plays without any perceivable sense of purpose, there’s a major problem on hand.

 

Aditya Srinivasan

Image Source: The Viewspaper

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