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SUNBURNT TERRACE - Indian football, Asian Games and the fault in our stars


IT'S BEEN SAID that Indian football is like a rusty old tubewell. You sweat more water from pumping the handle than you get to drink from it.

Look through the history of the sport in this country and you'll find that it moves from crisis to crisis. It's become such a habit that when things start going sort of well you start wondering when the hammer will drop and mess it all up.

And 2023 was going well. The Indian men's national team was unbeaten. They won three trophies in the same year for the first time ever. They played good football against a variety of opponents and held their own under immense pressure.

Even on the administrative level, things were looking up. ISL got its first promotion by merit. AIFF unveiled an ambitious Vision 2047 and launched some long needed reforms in women's football.

It stood to reason, then, that something bad had to happen to bring us all back to Earth. And true to form... Indian football delivered.

Unsurprisingly, Igor Stimac was at the centre of it all. He's a coach with a personality, and believes in speaking directly to the fans. And one issue he's been vocal about for the longest... the lack of prep time for the national team ahead of important tournaments.

This is not a new issue. Stephen Constantine faced it. Armando Colaco faced it. In fact national team coaches around the world would unanimously agree that they don't get enough time with their players. That's kind of the nature of professional football; clubs pay the money and get the bulk of the timeshare.

However, the 2023-24 season is particularly difficult in this regard and the first thing one needs to understand is that it's no one's fault. Indian football needs a robust domestic season. So a successful, elaborate Durand Cup, followed by a four division national league, is great for us. Historic, in fact. The problem is that the Asian Cup falls bang in the middle of the domestic season and leaves ISL with very little time.

So, when Igor Stimac took to the media and criticised everyone for not getting the one-month national camp that he wanted (and deserved), he was being a bit inconsiderate of the near-impossible situation the clubs and ISL organisers were facing with King's Cup, Merdeka Tournament, World Cup Qualifiers, Asian Cup all eating into their season.

Of course, criticising the ISL is something of a no-no for coaches. Just ask Constantine. Stimac was show-caused. And the matter should have ended there. But it obviously didn't.

Because, on a parallel track, something else was brewing. Something that would involve forces much bigger than the ones Indian football fans are usually familiar with.

The Asian Games is being treated by the Indian government as a platform to project soft power. As such, they decided to cut down on the number of athletes being sent to compete, because seeing Indian athletes lose most of the time didn't fit with the image they wanted to convey. To get there, a mere qualification would no longer be enough; one needed to be a "medal prospect."

This put an end to the Games being treated as a stepping stone for the Olympics. And Indian football teams (both men & women) went on the chopping block.

In 2018, being excluded from the event hurt Constantine's preparations for the Asian Cup. To prevent a repeat of that, the AIFF top brass went to work. The President Kalyan Chaubey comes from the same party that's in power. So there was hope. After a lot of negotiations, during which Indian football fans made it their life's mission to flood social media with appeals to the government, the permission to participate was finally granted. It had become such a big issue that even the Prime Minister tweeted about it.

But fast forward to September, things did not look so simple. Because of the aforementioned congested season, clubs weren't so keen on releasing players for what was a non-FIFA window tournament featuring a mostly U-23 side. Especially the clubs who were playing in AFC tournaments were adamantly against the idea of letting go of their players during crucial matches.

This was a situation that, once again, required careful handling. The clubs, though driven by their own competitive and commercial interests, are not run by irrational people. A calm discussion with the AIFF could make them see that the Asian Games were a golden opportunity for Indian football to reach a non-football audience. Because even those who have never followed Indian football in their life know what "quarter finals of Asian Games" means. And it's a realistic target because just days ago we almost held China to a draw with zero preparation and a second string squad in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers.

Asian Games is an opportunity to capture new fans and once they get hooked, that viewership will come straight to the Indian Super League and its clubs. It's the kind of publicity you can't pay for.

Also, in AFC competitions you can play a higher number of foreign players so the risks are quite limited for the potential reward on offer.

We know it was possible to make them understand and reach a compromise, because ultimately many of them did release players.

But of course, things can't be that simple, can they. This is Indian football we are talking about. So instead, somebody hatched a plan to fly players out to China from King's Cup, without prior notice, and without telling their clubs.

I'm saying somebody because neither AIFF officials nor Igor Stimac have owned up to what was a solid plan. Many Indian football fans have grown up with stories of clubs "kidnapping" players from trains and such to get them to sign by hook or crook. I'm not justifying that, just saying if somebody had to kidnap the players, the national team would be the best case scenario.

Okay, that was said in jest. I'll stop. 

Ideally, AIFF should have talked to the clubs beforehand and resolved the player release issue. From that point it only made sense to fly them from Thailand directly, since it was halfway to China and it'd give the national team a whole week to prepare at the venue, as opposed to the current scenario where India will reach the day before they play China and take to the field without a single training session at the venue.

Instead, it happened on the sly, and ended up becoming a big scandal that made the trust between the Federation and the clubs hit rock bottom.

Something else happened that caused the clubs to put their feet down. Aashique Kuruniyan was injured on 7th September during the King's Cup match against Iraq. By the time he got back to Mohun Bagan, the club found to their dismay that he had not been given proper treatment or even an MRI.

Igor Stimac has denied this, but it wouldn't be surprising if this was the case. Chiang Mai isn't the best place to treat injuries, as any tourist who crashed a bike in Northern Thailand would tell you. On top of that, India were playing two competitions simutaneously (King's Cup & AFC U-23 Qualifiers), so the staff had to be divided.

But again, lack of proper communication further irked the club and made matters worse.

Many of you have started to notice a theme by now: every single component in this collective mess so far could have been avoided with timely and clear communication. But unfortunately, it didn't happen.

Someone well-versed in astrology would blame it on Mercury being retrograde.

Which brings us to the most important topic in Indian football these days... the astrologer.

From the COA disclosures last year we know that AIFF paid some 14-15 lakhs to an astrologer for his services. The revelation was scandalous, and reflected poorly on Kushal Das, the General Secretary of that time. But soon after the "player kidnapping" plot was revealed, a report came out saying that Igor Stimac was consulting with the astrologer for team selection.

In 2023, nothing really shocks one's senses any more. Wars, pandemics, ethnic violence, economic collapse, governments talking about UFOs, veg pulao being unironically called biryani... we've grown numb to strangeness. What's surprising is that we're not just finding the babies who are born with "world champion" written in their stars instead of wasting money training lakhs of kids to produce 20 good players.

Once again, Igor Stimac has somewhat (not directly) shot down these allegations. But at the end of the day it's not the scandal it was made out to be. Superstition is very common in Indian football. And as long as you don't connect Stimac's allegedly astrologer-influenced decisions to a decline in performance, it's hard to nail him on this. We can go player by player to scrutinize his selection decisions and one can be sure he will have a perfectly rational explanation for each choice he made. After all, India did qualify for Asian Cup, won three back to back tournaments and broke back into the top 100 in FIFA rankings. No matter how you look at it, he's doing his job.

The only objectively objectionable part is AIFF spending money on an astrologer. But to be honest, who knows if there's more to that story? The COA had alleged multiple improprieties in AIFF's finances under the previous administration and there's a good chance we haven't got the full picture on that yet.

So... we're left in the semi-dark, frustrated that such a pile of nonsensical drama is being perpetrated around the national team.

Igor Stimac is far from perfect. He's got a big ego. He pays too much attention to what the fans on social media think of him. He stirs up issues he should stay away from, like whether players are getting too much money from their clubs or if the domestic season structure should be changed at the last minute to accommodate his demands. It's obvious that him crossing those lines repeatedly and several other issues have caused many people within the Indian football power circles to sour on him. And the only reason he hasn't been sacked yet is because the team is doing well.

It's also true that all this was entirely avoidable if he had shown more restraint with his mouth and his actions. But that's just not him. Four years into his tenure, several fiery comments and plenty of red cards later, we should know what to expect, and go along with it as long as he delivers on the field.

As for AIFF, FSDL, the clubs and everyone else who makes Indian football go around, there seems to be a case of compartmentalisation of duties that's causing everyone's objectives to clash with one another. It's nothing out of the ordinary, but if left unchecked, it can cause disasters like the one happening right now, where the Indian team is left without adequate preparations for Asian Games.

For the people in those big chairs, taking a moment to think like a fan instead of an administrator can be a very useful tool. Because the re-adjustment of priorities it brings to the table can solve many problems before they even arise.

A fan wouldn't care about a coach's antics. A fan would put the national team above everything else. A fan would look forward to the opportunity that the Asian Games brings to get all the non-football watching friends to follow the matches. A fan would forgive every misstep as long as the team gave its best. A fan woundn't hold personal grudges. A fan would leave aside personal ego and compromise, because if there's any fanbase in the world that makes selfless sacrifices today to keep alive the hope of future glory, it's the Indian football fans.

Because there is a world where AIFF officials' negotiations to get us to Asian Games and putting together a good team pays off bigly for everyone, including the clubs who took a risk by releasing players for national duty. There is a scenario where sticking with Igor Stimac works out for us. There is a possibility where we see the Prime Minister tweet about Indian football again.

But given our history, it'll probably cost us more sweat than the water we get from the tubewell.

Is that the nature of our system, or just our ever-rotten luck? Perhaps the astrologer can tell.

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