BEFORE INDIA BEGAN their campaign in the second round of the World Cup-Asian Cup joint qualifiers, there was a considerable amount of hype and hope. Everyone anticipated a rejuvenation in the team's performance, something that would reverse the steady decline in the country's FIFA ranking over the years.
But the two matches India were to play in June brought only heartbreak. At home against Oman, India went down fighting. But away to Guam, the fighting spirit was missing. India lost to a team much lower in the FIFA rankings than India, and their hope to make it to the next round of World Cup Qualifiers is all but crushed.
In retrospect, it is the loss to Guam that stings the most, mostly because it was supposed to be an easy match for the Blue Tigers. Here was a team near the very bottom of the FIFA Ranking well that never won a World Cup Qualifier match before it beat Turkmenistan, a team ranked even lower than themselves. But as the match began the 'Matao' quickly took control of the midfield, stood resolute in their defence and outran the Indian players in all parts of the field. They delivered India's second defeat in a week and a bundle of reasons for introspection.
What caused such unraveling? Was it the long journey, time difference, climate, turf or some other factor? Coach Constantine was dismissive of any such approach of looking at this debacle. In the post match press conference he voiced his opinion about what made the difference: 75% of Guam's players were born and brought up in the USA. They got the advantage of state-of-the-art grassroot facilities, top-notch coaching and played in a league way more competitive than the I-League. It was nothing odd considering Guam itself is a US territory, and all its people citizens of the USA. But in the end this was what made the difference. Even though we have made some progress in the past year, grassroot facilities in most parts of this country are still overwhelmingly sub-par. As a result, Indian players often fall short against countries with players that come from a better training background.
This is a repeat of what happened against Afghanistan and Pakistan. They, Guam and many other Asian countries have recently started including ethnic players born in Europe or US and reaped almost instant results. But in reflection of central government policies, AIFF, or any other sports association in the country, has never allowed foreign-born PIO (Person of Indian Origin) players to become a part of the Indian team unless they acquired a full Indian citizenship. And questions are being asked whether this is holding Indian football back.
In the FIFA Statute Article 17, eligibility for playing in a particular national team does not strictly require the player to be born in that country. If any of the parents or grandparents are from that country, or if the player has lived in that country for at least 5 years after the age of 18, the player becomes eligible for selection in that country's national team. This rule allows players some degree of choice in choosing their FIFA nationality, which needs not be the same as their passport nationality. This is in line with the concept of dual citizenship that many countries embrace, unlike India.
Should Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) be allowed to play for Team India? The question evokes responses that go beyond sports into issues regarding bureaucracy and international politics. At first glance there are good chances of reaping quick benefits by allowing PIOs in the national team. Many national teams, after opening themselves up to their Western-born diaspora, saw an upward swing in their performance; Pakistan, Afghanistan, Guam are just a few of those countries.
In fact, in the early 2000s, certain countries like Qatar started awarding citizenships to players from Brazil and Africa just so they could play in their national team. Lest the trend catch on and turn national teams into clubs jostling for players with each other, FIFA had to intervene and put a stop to this. But players choosing their FIFA nationality by heritage or living choice, while occasionally controversial, has never been a taboo in world football.
So why should PIOs be banned from donning the Indian colours? Arata Izumi, a Japanese-born midfielder with an Indian father, came to play in India in 2006. He wanted to play for the Blue Tigers but it took him 6 years to obtain a full Indian citizenship and get the national team call-up. It's quite possible that had PIOs been allowed to play for India we could have benefited from his services for a much longer time.
Then there is Michael Chopra, a British citizen and Premier League veteran who holds an OCI card (Overseas Citizens of India). OCI status does not grant him full citizenship and other rights like voting and applying for government service. Nor does it grant him an Indian passport, hence he is barred from playing for India.
After India's loss to Guam he took to Twitter to express his anguish, writing,
“Find this hard to believe India 1 v 2 Guam India population over 1.2 billion people Guam population about 165,124 the rules need to change… 75% of the players who represented Guam have been born and brought up in the US so why won't [AIFF and Stephen Constantine] push for players like myself who hav (sic) an oci card and want to play for the [Indian] football team try and make it happen it's the only way football in India.”
Other Indian-origin footballers, like Harmeet Singh in Norway and Neil Taylor in Wales could be interested in playing for India, too, if OCI status was enough for national team selection.
Now, make no mistake, all of these players benefited from the thorough, professional training environment prevalent across Europe and other parts of the world. Their presence in the team would certainly boost the team's quality and performance. But there is little chance AIFF will let them play for the national team unless they become full-fledged Indian citizens.
See, India does not recognize dual citizenship. The OCI status was created for the express purpose of attracting the diaspora without giving them a dual citizenship. And there are many deep-seated reasons behind this socio-political stance and in the eyes of the government they all trump sports.
Refusal to accept dual citizenship is primarily an attempt to present the Indian identity as self-sufficient, perhaps pure. Much of it is due to the fact that many Indians have their roots in Pakistan and Bangladesh and vice versa. If India allowed dual citizenship these would be citizens of these two nations who would have the biggest claims to hold an Indian passport, and many Indians would want a Pakistani or Bangladeshi passport as well. China and Sri Lanka, being neighbours, would also be major players in India's dual-citizenship scene. Given India's muddy diplomatic relationship with these countries, the government isn't too keen on opening up to that possibility. Imagine the dilemma surrounding people holding India-Pakistan dual citizenship if the two countries decide to go to war one fine morning.
But then India could just put these and other problematic nations in a blacklist while still recognizing dual-citizenships with other countries. There are huge numbers of PIOs residing in Europe, North America and other parts of the world who have either had to give up their Indian passports in order to become naturalized citizens of that country or remain Indian citizens and lead a life full of red tapes. Multiple arguments have been made in support of recognizing dual citizenships in order to tap into these communities that are full of talented, resourceful people who can bring in investments and other opportunities to this country. But the government's reluctance to agree to that is due to the widespread nostalgia about the diaspora. Living abroad but staying connected to Indian roots and values, and one day coming back to India… this is a theme that has been explored repeatedly in Indian literature and cinema. It draws strong emotional responses from people, and no government wants to fiddle with their voters' emotions the wrong way. Also, not allowing dual citizenship works as a deterrent for people who want to leave India for any reason; or at least it's meant to.
So unless there is a major policy shift or socio-political change, coupled with transformation in diplomatic situations with our dear neighbours, there is little chance that India will recognize dual-citizenships. OCI status, too, will remain the limited privilege it is because adding to it would essentially make it a dual-citizenship by proxy. Hence, although allowing PIOs to play for the Indian team would bring in a lot of benefits, chances are it's not going to happen.
For Indian-origin players like Michael Chopra, this means the only way to play for India is to become an Indian citizen, like Arata Izumi. Whether he will do it or not only time will tell. This also means other PIO footballers like Harmeet Singh and Neil Taylor are that much less likely to represent India.
For the Indian football fraternity, this means there is no shortcut to success. We cannot simply import footballers from the West and start winning matches. We must build the same infrastructure that leading footballing nations already have in place in order to reap the rewards. And it's not all hopeless on that front. Over the past few years we have seen academies, football clubs as well as ISL franchises undertake grassroot initiatives and while it's nothing massive, it's a start. Football's popularity in India is on the rise, and that means more and more children will be join football schools and grassroot camps. They, too, will receive training and conditioning from an early age. They, too, will attain the high level of footballing intelligence that Stephen Constantine lamented the lack of. And eventually, all this hard work will pay off, when the new generation of footballers make it to the national team and start winning matches for us.
But the whole process will take years. So for the fans, all this means that they are in for a long test of their patience. There will be many more false starts, small rises and falls, and frustration of coming close but missing out. Although the ISL has given the impression to some that this is “the Birth of Indian Football”, it's nothing but a continuation of a struggle that has been raging for decades now. Success won't be easy and certainly not quick. But there's absolutely no reason to give up hope. The tunnel ahead is long, but there is a light at its end.