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Participation in limbo - Former footballers raise voice, appeal to government to allow team in Asian Games

Former India captain Shabbir Ali said the team should be allowed to participate in the Asian Games. He asked, without exposure, how will the players improve?

Participation in limbo - Former footballers raise voice, appeal to government to allow team in Asian Games

FILE PHOTO: Sunil Chhetri in action during the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru. (Photo Credit: AIFF)


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 23 July 2023 5:56 AM GMT

Kolkata: There is an old saying: actions speak louder than words. And it perfectly captures the ongoing scenario around Indian football.

Football in India has been constantly making headlines for the past few months, for a change, for good reasons. The Indian men's team has been unbeaten in their last 11 matches and won three consecutive tournaments at home, including the SAFF Championship against a tougher opponent, Kuwait, in the final.

Igor Stimac's boys have put up a consistent show in recent times, denoting that the team led by Sunil Chhetri has made rapid improvements. India's recent unbeaten run meant officials at Delhi's Football House felt encouraged to make the moment count by sending the team to the Asian Games so that the players get much-needed exposure.

The AIFF, under the helm of its newly elected president Kalyan Chaubey, who is also the acting CEO of IOA, the nodal authority of Olympic sports in India, has successfully managed to send the names of the Indian footballers to the Asian Games organiser. But when the country started dreaming of a new dawn in Indian football, infighting between Chaubey and IOA president PT Usha that followed guidelines from the sports ministry, stating that only the sports where India is ranked inside the top eight would be considered for the Games, left that spirit damped.

"For team events, only those sports which have achieved a ranking up to eighth among the participating countries in Asia in the last year should be considered for participation for the Asian Games," the July 10 sports ministry guidelines sent to the IOA and national federations stated.

Currently, the Indian team is ranked 18th in the AFC rankings, and that has technically become a stumbling block in the team's participation in the Games. It was on this ground, the IOA refused the football team's participation in the 2018 Asian Games. Since the team has had scant performance, no objection was raised then. But this time, with the team having a magnificent number to show in its favour, the federation pitched strongly for its participation. And for that, the officials are lobbying hard with the sports ministry.

In terms of performance, India is the third best-performing side in the history of the Games, with two gold (1951, 1962) and one bronze (1970) to their credit.

Although the IOA has already sent the names of the Indian football squad, selected by the AIFF, to the organiser, the latest development was a bolt from the blue, leaving the football fraternity disgruntled.

The Asian Games football draw is scheduled for July 27, and the last date for withdrawing the team is July 26.

The current Indian team, which has seven or more players under the age of 23, is best placed to compete in the event in the company of three distinguished senior players- Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, whom the AIFF selected to accompany the juniors.

While the recent happening in the corridors of the IOA has hurt the sentiment of football fans, AIFF officials are still putting in the hard yards to get India's U-23 side through to the Games.

Former players raise their voices

Reacting to the existing development, former Indian captain Shabbir Ali told The Bridge, "Participation is more important than winning, you have to think on that line. Our boys would get exposure."

"Football is not an individual event, the government has to be a little flexible. Belgium was once the number one side in the world, but did they win any big tournaments like the EURO or World Cup?" asked Shabbir, a former India striker turned coach.

The Hyderabadi also revealed a precedent of the Indian football team facing an identical situation in the past.

"In the 1974 Asian Youth Championships, they (the government) were not permitting us to travel. Then the federation (AIFF) gave an assurance that the team would do well. We, beyond everyone's expectations, reached the final," said Shabbir, the captain of the side.

Former India captain Shabbir Ali at his residence in Hyderabad.

India, creditably, played a 2-2 draw against Iran in the final to share the gold medal. Incidentally, that was the last time India won any continental medal.

A similar situation arose in 1962 as well before the Jakarta Asian Games when the IOA refused to bear the expenses of the football team. AIFF officials had to step in to collect the requisite money, while Bollywood hero Dilip Kumar, an ardent fan of the national team, too, contributed. The Indian team, coached by Syed Abdul Rahim, put up a brave show to win the gold medal, beating South Korea in the summit clash.

"Nobody ever dared to think about that. Now, that India is playing well, competing well, they should be given a chance. Winning is not everything. You never know what will happen because it is a team sport. Even at the World Cup, many top-ranked sides lost, likewise many lower-ranked sides did well. In Qatar (World Cup), has anybody ever thought that Morocco would reach the semifinals and Saudi Arabia would beat Argentina? If you do not allow the team to participate in the Asian Games, how will they improve?" asked the 67-year-old.

Coach Stimac, who is quite vocal about the affairs of Indian football, even made an appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sports minister Anurag Thakur on Twitter, seeking their intervention in the struggle. "A humble appeal and sincere request to Honourable Prime Minister Sri @narendramodi ji and Hon. Sports Minister @ianuragthakur, to kindly allow our football team to participate in the Asian games. We will fight for our nation’s pride and the flag! Jai Hind!"

Former India goalkeeper Subrata Paul said, "I understand the sports ministry's criterion, but I think it is too harsh in this case. Our team is not far from breaking into the Top 8 in Asia, I hope they reconsider its decision and allow the team to participate in Asiad."

AIFF technical committee head IM Vijayan also threw his weight behind the team's participation in the Hangzhou Games, stating that the experience of the Games would be valuable for the team ahead of the Asian Cup in January and World Cup qualifiers.

"The Indian needs to participate in the Asian Games as it gives us a wealth of experience. The (senior) Indian team has been doing well this year, and I am hopeful that it will be continuing with its performance in the Asian Games too. The Indian team will be playing in some big events like the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers later in the year and the Asiad experience can add a lot of venue," Vijayan said recently at an event in Kolkata.

Former great Bhaichung Bhutia, meanwhile, suggests that the federation should bear the expenses of the team. "The AIFF should approach the sports Ministry, saying that it will bear the expenses if the government allows the teams to participate."

Ray of hope

Although the hope of the team's participation is in limbo now, the AIFF has a strong reason to believe that participation in the Games is still not out of the equation. The sports ministry's guidelines have a provision that might come in handy for the federation.

"Where, in the opinion of the experts of specific sports disciplines, and that of Sports Authority of India, participation of individuals and teams in relaxation of the above criteria is recommended with justifiable reasons, the same will be considered in the Ministry for appropriate decision," the provision read.

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