Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nehru Cup: Early sheen that never returned and quality got replaced by mediocrity!

A feeling of nostalgia and excitement engulf me when I turn the clock back to those initial years of the Nehru Cup football tournament – an international invitational tourney kickstarted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) thirty years back.

As a school-going kid, I vividly remember the 1982 and 1984 editions of the Nehru Cup, which were held at the Eden Gardens (during that time Eden Gardens used to be a multipurpose stadium, hosting international football tournaments as well as international cricket matches).

I can recall watching some of the matches telecast live with the Stadium packed to capacity with the Doordarshan commentators going gung-ho every time the Indian team orchestrated an attacking move.

Two-time World champions Uruguay arrived for Nehru Cup’s inaugural edition with two star world-cuppers - Enzo Francescoli and Venancio Ramos mesmerizing the Indian crowds with their debt touch and supreme ball control. Francescoli justified his reputation scoring twice during the tournament to propel Uruguay to a title win  – they cosily put it across India 3-1 in the league stage as well.

The first few editions of the Nehru Cup were the best, in terms of quality of football dished out, as a galaxy of big names graced the tournament.

In fact, the Nehru Cup made the biggest noises during the 1984 edition featuring 1978 World Cup champions Argentina, which had the likes of Jorge Burruchaga and Nery Pumpido – the duo were part of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning team in Mexico two years later. Carlos Billardo – the man who coached Argentina to glory in Mexico – was also one of the eyeball grabbers of the 1984 edition.

I cherish fond memories of India’s match against Argentina – how the Blue Tigers fought resiliently and kept the formidable opponents at bay for most part before the Argentinians pulled off the match-clincher in the closing stages of the game.

Similarly, Poland fresh from its impressive third-place finish at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, had in its ranks the duo of Włodzimierz Smolarek (the man who scored a goal in their 5-1 win over Peru at the 1982 World Cup) and Andrzej Buncol (he played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups) who netted an important goal against Argentina.

The tournament was further lent the ‘star’ quotient by the presence of Hungary’s prolific forward Laszlo Kiss who turned out for club side Vasas Budapest in the 1984 edition. Kiss, who must have left a lot of Hungarian spectators blowing ‘kisses’ at him during the 1982 World Cup when he became the first substitute player to score three goals in a World Cup match, dazzled the Indian fans with his skills.

The fact that the Nehru Cup attracted global attention can be best underpinned by the fact that England's 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore was the chief guest in the 1984 Nehru Cup final in which Poland got the better of China, which has the not-so-memorable feat of being runners-up four times and not winning the title even once.

Talking of memories, I recall the 1986 Nehru Cup where the Russia team featured as many as five world cuppers - Sergey Krakovsky, Andrey Bal, Vasiliy Rats, Vadim Yevtushenko and Igor Belanov. It was a little surprise that the Russians won that edition. Vadim Yevtushenko stole the show scoring six goals alone. The 1986 edition was also graced by Peru’s Franco Navarro – the 1982 World Cupper – who regaled the Indian spectators pumping in 2 goals.

Without a shadow of doubt, the Nehru Cup was in the pink of health – drawing huge crowds, attracting some of the world’s leading lights but the tournament steadily started to lose its sheen since the late 80s.

AIFF’s biggest hassle was ensuring the participation of marquee players/teams in the subsequent editions – which massively dented the profile of the country’s only international invitational tournament.

One is not sure on which fronts the organizers could have failed in drawing the big teams/players. Or was it linked to lack of adequate sponsors or lack of government backing for the event?

I can agree that roping in sponsors is a tough proposition given India’s standing in international football (being ranked outside 150). We got to understand that sponsors would only come forward if they can derive sufficient mileage from an event and not otherwise. That probably explains why the Nehru Cup’s sponsor cupboard has been bare in recent times.

But obviously, lack of government backing cannot be an issue. AIFF had someone like Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi – a former Union Minister – at the helm of AIFF for 20 years (1988-2008). Dasmunshi wielded considerable clout and it is difficult to believe how the AIFF could not have secured government backing.

The AIFF had a new President in former Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel in 2009 after Dasmunshi suffered a massive heart attack in October 2008, leaving him confined to bed.

The Nehru Cup has in recent times always witnessed a consistent pattern of teams initially confirming to send their first teams and later showing keenness only to send their second-string teams or junior age-group teams as a bid to treat the tournament as more of an exposure trip rather than anything else. At times, the organizers have been left with no option but to include such teams.

The tournament – which became a biennial  event in 1989 – gradually saw a dip in spectator interest as AIFF failed to evince football buffs’ interest with second-string teams turning up against India.

The Nehru Cup slipped into a ‘coma’ - the tournament was not held during the 1998-2006 period after Iraq won the 1997 edition.

Again, one is curious to know what could have been the reasons for the organizers not to hold the tourney for a ten-year period? I can think of lack of sponsors being an impediment but nothing beyond that.

ONGC came to AIFF’s rescue and played a big part in reinstatement of the Nehru Cup in 2007.  The oil giant turned up as the title sponsor of the 2007 Nehru Cup – called the ONGC Nehru Cup. A new trophy was also designed after the original rolling trophy could not be recovered from Iraq for reasons unknown to us.

Former India Bob Houghton deserves a large chunk of the credit for reviving the Nehru Cup. It is said that Houghton’s cajoling was a big factor in AIFF reinstating this tourney. ONGC not just sponsored the 2007 edition but the 2009 edition as well – it also happened to be a sweet coincidence as India won the both editions much to the delight of its sponsors as well its supporters.

The revival of the Nehru Cup was a big positive for Indian football but some problems seem to be deep-rooted. The ‘shining’ stars who used to grace the Nehru Cup in the eighties continued to distance themselves from the tournament as India basked in the glory of winning the Nehru team against teams which exactly cannot be called first teams.

In recent times, the AIFF seemed to be taking a hard stance in order to restore some degree of competitiveness in the tournament. For instance, the organizers dropped Palestine from the 2012 edition after they expressed its inability to send its main team. The AIFF also cracked the whip on Thailand, which also wanted to send its under-19 team for the 2012 Nehru Cup. Even Kenya confirmed its participation and then later expressed its desire to send their under-19 team, which was rejected by AIFF. So, amid all the flak the AIFF draws at most times, they deserve a pat on their backs for taking a stand.

Of course, it is not always the case that teams are reluctant to send their first teams. Most teams face the common problem of their main players being not released by their respective clubs. If you take out some of the big club leagues of the world, most of the country’s big players ply their trade outside their home country. Football federations find it even exceedingly difficult to convince clubs to release their players, especially if it is an invitational event like the Nehru Cup.

The 2012 Nehru Cup continues to follow the similar pattern of teams taking part without its main players. Cameroon came into the tournament without two big guns - Samuel Eto and Alex Son. Same goes with Syria, who are sans some of its main players who are playing abroad in countries like Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Irrespective of whether India scores a hat-trick of Nehru Cup wins, the bottomline is: a humongous effort is needed to make this tournament a howling success.

A part of the onus to raise the profile of the tournament lies with the Indian team, which has to perform well and climb up in the FIFA rankings, which will automatically enhance big teams’ readiness to play against us, in turn benefiting the profile of the Nehru Cup and ensure it becomes an annual event (like the 80s) and not a biennial one, something I earnestly desire!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Never-ending talk of whether a foreign or an Indian coach is the answer to Indian hockey’s woes

The never-ending discussion about what is the answer to Indian hockey’s woes – should we have a foreign coach or should we plumb for an Indian coach? - gets only animated every time our national team returns from a major tourney defeated, embarrassed and morale severely dented.

The rich legacy of winning eight Olympic gold medals almost works like a ‘firewall’ for our former international greats, who found it hard to swallow that a foreign coach can be a remedy for uplifting Indian hockey.

Illustrious names – Zafar Iqbal, Mohammed Shahid, Jude Felix, Pargat Singh, Dhanraj Pillay Jagbir Singh, Ashish Ballal, Thoiba Singh, MM Somaya, Merwyn Fernandes, Mohinder Pal Singh and Joaquim Carvalho readily spring to mind when we think of our former internationals who could coach the national team. Let’s face it; no one is questioning the pedigree of these former internationals but having them in the ‘hot seat’ is replete with impediments.

And the biggest among them is the status of the sport’s national federation - Hockey India (HI), which is locked in an unbecoming tussle with Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) over which group will run the sport in the country.

To call spade a spade it really does not matter which group is running the sport as far as the players are concerned since the whims and fancies of both these groups have been a ‘big factor’ in many promising careers falling by the wayside.

Given such a scenario, it is difficult to accept how our former international greats would fit in the federation’s scheme of things as coach of the national team. Most of these former greats have played for the country with distinction and would desire a free hand in their bid to deliver the desired results. In India, the federation won't mind one bit to exercise control over the coach and expect him to function as a ‘yes man’ which in turn sows the seeds of a disappointing chapter – which we have been witness to for many years now.

Often, the biggest angst among our former greats (many of them, if not all) is that the federation pays hefty salaries to foreign coaches while our coaches are paid peanuts, which is a fair point. Striking a fine balance is the key and weeding out this enormous disparity in salaries is the way forward.

I am ready to be castigated for this but I am willing to say that foreign coaches have never been given a fair crack of the whip to build a team that can deliver.

Save for the below-par German coach Gerhard Rach (who was a wrong choice in the first place anyway) –  the then IHF appointed him barely three weeks before the 2004 Athens Olympics after it sacked Rajinder Singh to whom the German served as an assistant for a couple of months.

Over the years some of the big names of world hockey were drafted in to resurrect our fortunes but the spectre of red tapism and official mismanagement ensured much of the efforts went down the drain.

Aussie legend Ric Charlesworth was appointed as Technical Advisor of the Indian team in 2008 but he quit within a year of taking up the job, reportedly frustrated at not being given a free hand to oversee the senior team, not to speak of his salary which was allegedly also not paid on time.

Spanish Jose Brasa took charge of the Indian team in 2009 and his eighteen-month stint was the longest any foreign coach has had so far. In fact, Brasa worked well with the team after the 2008 ‘Chile catastrophe’. He guided India to a silver medal and bronze medal finish at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and 2010 Asiad. Inexplicably, Brasa’s contract was not renewed and no one knows why?

Australian Michael Nobbs took over in August 2011 with his stress on ‘attacking hockey’. Surprisingly, Nobbs took charge barely six months before the Olympic qualifiers and probably not many were that optimistic about India making the cut – probably fans’ interest in the sport had dipped substantially after the 2008 Chile shocker even though we made a podium finish at the last Commonwealth Games and the 2010 Asian Games.

The resounding manner in which India qualified for the Olympics led to expectations soaring with India being touted as a medal hopeful – a far cry from what was going through hockey lovers’ mind six months before - we were not sure whether we would even qualify.

However, the wooden spoon at the 2012 London Olympics panned out to be an ‘unpleasant surprise’ with all and sundry calling for Nobbs’ head.

Such a public backlash is not unprecedented  in India – be it a foreign or an Indian coach, this has been the trend – such a backlash lasts for a few weeks and when once dust settles down, nothing changes except a few scapegoats are found and are dealt with as per the federation’s wishes.

So, within six months of taking up as India coach, Michael Nobbs must have realized how things can go horribly wrong in no time. He must be scrutinized for some of his tactics, especially team selection. But if we think letting him go is the answer, I would only say ‘God save Indian hockey’.

The tug-of-war - whether a foreign or an Indian coach - would bring back the glorious days of Indian hockey appears to be an unending one, but on the turf one still harbors hope that the Indian team would recover from the Olympic wounds and come out stronger.

Maybe a return of Indian hockey’s glory days could just put a lid on such incessant talk.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Let’s not make Michael Nobbs a scapegoat for India’s disastrous showing in Olympics!

Watching some of the top hockey teams like Australia, Netherlands, Germany play at the 2012 Olympics gives you a fair impression of the improvement areas Indian team needs to focus on. Michael Nobbs-coached Indian team adopted the Australian style of hockey, the merits of which were seen in all the games India played in the last six months going into the London Olympics. 

But with the Indian team delivering their worst-ever performance at hockey’s showpiece event, all the demerits of it are coming out of the closet and that too, in droves.

As a hockey fan first, and second as a sports journalist, I am saddened at the way the Indian team has cut such a frustrating figure at the Olympics. In fact, all the pre-tournament hopes pinned on India got a massive leg up when India fought hard against the Netherlands, especially in the second half after a forgettable first half before an ‘unfair’ penalty stroke denial in the dying minutes of the game robbed us of the opportunity to script a 3-3 draw. The only solace was that we lost narrowly (2-3) against one of the world’s top sides.

If we thought, the loose ends (we saw against Netherlands) would be tightened in the next game against New Zealand, we were in for a rude jolt. Save for an early goal by India through Sandeep Singh, the remainder of the game was witness to the shoddy sight of ball trapping/possession errors inside our own ‘D’ as well as in the midfield. 

Our defensive gaffes were just too many for our comfort so much so that every opposition team now fully realized that this Indian team can be taken apart because their defence has the propensity to consistently falter.

I was shocked to see someone as experienced as Ignace Tirkey (254 international caps) commit schoolboyish blunders in defence, and that too, with alarming regularity. Even Sandeep Singh was guilty of easily conceding possession. Vokkaliga Raghunath was also part of the guilty party but one must say that, he was the only one who showed some heart to offer some resistance.

Penalty conversion was tipped to be one of our improvement areas in recent times but it panned out to be a huge disappointment. Sandeep Singh was doing no good to his reputation (his defensive skills never convinces us) and struggled to blast home his penalty corners. 

Given Sandeep’s senior stature in the side, another talented drag-flicker Vokkaliga Raghunath was not getting enough opportunities to fire his PCs in. Maybe, Raghunath should be given a bigger role in taking penalty corners and lets face it; his defensive skills are far better than Sandeep and this would help India as the strapping defender can execute both skills with aplomb.

The fragility of the Indian defenders put our goalkeepers - Bharat Chetri and PR Sreejesh - under tremendous pressure throughout the tournament. In fact, it won't be a far-fetched exaggeration to suggest that the performance of our goal-tenders has been our lone silver lining.

Midfield is one key area which dictates the way the game tilts. India have been found wanting. Playmaker Sardara Singh dished out a mixed bag kind of performance. Although Sardara manned the midfield resiliently, he was also guilty of conceding possession as well as indulging in wrong passing. But take Sardara out, you start to realize that our midfield is almost non-existent without him.

Maybe the team management made a tactical bloomer by not inducting Kothaljit in the final 16 Olympic squad and picking him only as a standby.

The muted apprehension of the Indian forwards’ poor finishing reared its ugly head at London. The only significant change in the forwardline’s performance was that they created another liability for the team – not creating enough scoring chances coupled with their already established tag of being 'poor finishers'.

The trio of Shivendra Singh, SV Sunil and Tushar Khandekar  failed miserably to rise to the occasion. Shivendra was expected to spearhead the attack but instead turned out to be a passenger on the turf, doing little of note. 

SV Sunil captures the attention of all with his ‘Cheetah’ like runs but does very little beyond that. Tushar Khandekar shoned in patches but as a senior pro, he was expected to deliver much more than that. It’s difficult to see the international careers of the triumvirate spanning longer, especially Shivendra and Tushar.

Indian forwards were guilty of erring while spraying crosses from the flanks. On most occasions, it would seem as if crosses were drilled in just for the sake of it, with no Indian player present near the face of the opposition goal or even trying to anticipate to tap it home. 

Danish Mujtaba is another overrated player who messed it up in crucial times. In fact, most of these players committed errors, which either allowed the opposition to mount a counter-attack, resulting in goals or caught our backline napping.

Every major tourney disaster for the Indian hockey team is accompanied by the axing of a coach. For God’s sake, one hopes this is not the case this time around.

Michael Nobbs has been hired for a period of five years and he should be allowed to serve his coaching tenure so that he can sow the seeds that can transform India into a world-beater. 

Indian hockey can take heart from the way some of the Australians have transformed the fortunes of several international teams. Former Australian star forward Mark Hager, who took over as coach of the New Zealand's women's team in 2009, propelled them to a semifinal berth at the 2012 Olympics - the same Black Sticks who were languishing outside the top nine not so long ago.

Another former Australian Olympian Colin Batch has also turned around the fortunes of Belgium's men's hockey team. Batch has been highly credited for the manner in which the Red Lions finished fifth at the London Olympics after going into the mega event with a world ranking of 11.

Surely, it is time for Indian hockey to do some serious soul-searching and not look for scapegoats. Let’s make a beginning as Indian hockey cannot go any worse than this!

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