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Indian Football's struggles: Rohan Sharma and Raj Athwal speak out

Rohan Sharma and Raj Athwal addressed key issues of Indian football from accountability to player selection and the potential inclusion of Indian-origin players.

Indian Football Team

Indian Football Team (Source: AIFF)


Aswathy Santhosh

Published: 11 April 2024 8:35 AM GMT

Indian football stands at a pivotal crossroads, teetering between success and failure. The aspiration of advancing to the third round of FIFA World Cup qualifiers hangs precariously following a devastating loss to Afghanistan on home turf. Despite fervent support from the crowd, the anticipated resurgence of the Blue Tigers remains a distant dream.

Criticism and discontent swirl on social media, yet solutions remain elusive. Igor Stimac, unyielding in his reproach of players and leagues, deflects blame everywhere but upon himself, drawing the ire of Juan Pedro Benali, the head coach of NorthEast United, among others.

Engaging in a conversation with The Bridge encompassing various facets of the national team, Odisha FC club owner Rohan Sharma and club president Raj Athwal delve into the heart of the matter.

Accountability, player selection, and the Igor Stimac dilemma

Rohan swiftly came to the defense of the players but rejected the excuses being made.

"I don't blame the players. The Australia game was relatively okay; we held them to a respectable scoreline. But after that, it all went downhill. I also don't agree with people blaming the league and all that. I find it rather insulting. Blaming the league again and again? Give me another excuse, please," he chuckled.

Rohan also disagreed with Igor Stimac's quick blame on club coaches after the Asian Cup. "Club coaches go through a lot that national team coaches do not," he argued.

"While the national team coach gets to return home, relax in a five-star hotel, and enjoy various benefits, many club coaches don't have that luxury. They often stay in modest hotels, rarely get to go home, and have to manage hectic schedules dictated by the league. For instance, Odisha FC had three periods this season where they played three games in seven days, which is incredibly demanding," he pointed out, highlighting the unfair scheduling faced by clubs.

Rohan expressed dissatisfaction with Igor Stimac's approach after victories against smaller opponents in the SAFF Cup.

"Bringing up wins against weaker teams in the SAFF Cup doesn't impress me," he asserted. "If you manage to beat a top team, then you can celebrate and make all the patriotic gestures like posing, chanting 'Jay Hind,' and so on. Save that enthusiasm for when you face a tough opponent," he emphasized.

While acknowledging the challenges faced by Igor Stimac as a national team coach, Rohan doesn't completely dismiss them. "Being a national team coach is tough due to dealing with various parties and egos," he admits. "However, it's not fair to shift blame onto others. You can't just point fingers at club owners or coaches and neglect your responsibilities," he asserted.

He pointed out the scrutiny surrounding Igor Stimac's national team call-ups, particularly regarding Odisha FC's limited representation despite their strong position and performance in the AFC Cup.

Stimac's remarks, dragging Mohun Bagan and Odisha FC into the equation, further fueled the discussion. Stimac said in a press conference that if top clubs of the country are losing against clubs from Bangladesh, there is nothing much the team could do.

Reacting to Stimac's comment, Rohan said, "If you call up six players from the bottom half of the table and then are surprised by their performance, it's not entirely fair. I'm not blaming the players individually I believe some higher-quality players could have been selected. If players are performing well in Asia, they should be considered."

Indian origin players, the way forward?

India currently prohibits OCI or PIO players from representing its national team, despite the presence of numerous talented individuals of Indian origin excelling in foreign leagues, such as Yan Dhanda. Rohan and Raj Athwal hold different views on the potential inclusion of OCI/PIO players in the national squad.

Reflecting on Qatar's recent success in winning the Asian Cup consecutively with diaspora players, Raj Athwal advocated for India to follow suit. "I believe it would elevate our standard. A successful national team could also drive more attention to our domestic league, akin to what cricket achieved with the 1983 World Cup. As someone of Indian origin, I take pride in India, and I've encountered players in England with similar sentiments, eager to represent their heritage," he said.

There's a prevailing misconception that players of Indian origin may not share the same sentiment towards India.

"Just because they're overseas doesn't diminish their connection to India; in fact, they often cherish their heritage while seeing international football as an opportunity," he debunked the notion.

Moreover, Raj highlighted the potential benefits of including OCI/PIO players.

"It could positively impact Indian players domestically," he suggested. "Take Qatar's success in the Asian Cup, for instance. Despite the majority of their players being from overseas, they've excelled on the world stage. Similarly, consider the 1994 Irish team; many players were born in England with Irish ancestry, yet they represented Ireland at the World Cup, defeating Italy in their first game."

"India currently lacks the caliber to beat or compete with top teams," stated Raj Athwal. "I honestly believe it will take several years for us to reach a level where we can challenge the top teams. And I'm not just referring to the top ten or twenty; even breaking into the top 40 or 50 will be a considerable feat," he concluded.

Rohan, on the other hand, echoes the sentiments of many Indian football fans. "It's a double-edged sword," he explained, "because opting for OCI players can bring quick success. However, if we choose the harder path, by fostering the development of our Indian players, I believe they will improve through exposure to international football."

Although he didn't entirely dismiss the idea of having OCI players, he thinks it might negatively impact the Indian players.

"They'll feel demotivated if they don't get a chance to play for the national team because someone from England is chosen over them. However, I do like the idea, perhaps with a restriction, like three or four players, similar to what we have in the ISL for foreigners. But once you start, it's a Pandora's box, right? Once you open up that can, it's going to open up all sorts of possibilities," Rohan signed off.

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