India versus Guam should have been a modern remake of David versus Goliath—a tiny US territory in the north Pacific Ocean with a population of just 170,000 against the behemoth from the subcontinent with a population of 1.25 billion.
The game did turn into a mismatch, but with a surprising outcome. Travis Nicklaw, a sophomore from San Diego State University, and Brandon McDonald, a defender without a club, scored for Guam, who played a brave possession-based game. India’s talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri pulled back a consolation goal in the game’s waning moments.
“We are disappointed,” said Stephen Constantine, the Indian coach, at the post-match press conference. “Today, the difference was very much visible between a group of players who have the best football education and the rest. Seventy five percent of the players who represented Guam have been born and brought up in the US, and that made a huge difference.”
Constantine’s assessment was accurate. The game was a timely reminder of a quality vacuum in the Indian team. The Matao—as Guam’s team is nicknamed—outplayed and outsmarted India’s Blue Tigers, whose game was disjointed, if not bereft of any cohesion and belonging. India had no identity, notwithstanding a core of Bengaluru FC players in their ranks.
In football, identity is often discussed in terms of national style. Holland had their famous “Total Football.” Italy featured the “Catenaccio,” with an emphasis on defence. Spain has the “Tiki-taka,” full of short passes and lots of movement. Brazil has simply been the Samba Kings.
“India had a distinctive football identity,” said Novy Kapadia, one of India’s leading football experts. “From 1956 to 1962, India were the best in Asia and called the ‘Brazil of Asia’ because they played skilful short-passing football, with focus on body swerves and dribbling.”
Then it changed, Kapadia argued, because “India surrendered their football identity by bowing to the wishes of every foreign coach.”
Since the 1980s, of the 15 men who have managed the Indian national team, nine have been foreign coaches—from the Serbian Milovan Ćirić to Jiří Pešek of the Czech Republic. Each brought their own philosophy and style, with frequent coaching changes adding to the problem.
Constantine, a Greek-Cypriot Londoner, promised an attacking brand of football when he took charge of the Indian team for the second time this January. That was something his Dutch predecessor, Wim Koevermans, had failed to deliver. But against Guam, India disappointed offensively and left the team’s World Cup campaign shattered. It also put its qualification attempts for the 2019 Asian Cup in jeopardy.
In Europe, continental powerhouses reinvented their footballing identity after soul-crushing defeats. Spain reconsidered their style and tactics after a 3-2 capitulation against Nigeria at the 1998 World Cup. Eventually, the La Roja would win EURO 2008.
Germany renounced defensive solidity and organised build-up from the back for a more dynamic and adventurous approach when Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Low took charge after a disappointing first round exit at EURO 2004. A decade later, Die Mannschaft won the 2014 World Cup. Each time the overhaul spanned at least a decade, culminating in a renaissance.
“India needs to plan a two-decade-long cycle,” said Kapadia. “However, sponsors, investors, fans are impatient and keep talking about the World Cup. We should aim to improve in Asia. Also, youth development is only given lip-service in Indian football. Age group football in India is full of fraudulent players masquerading as youngsters. The game has not spread all over the country. It is only played in pockets. Hence, international results are poor.”
Instead of a ground-up strategy to improve football in the subcontinent, the focus has seemingly shifted on the glitzy Indian Super League (ISL) built around ageing global superstars. Admittedly, the spectator response has been encouraging, with average attendance of 26,000 at ISL games, and a television audience of some 400 million viewers. That’s a far cry from the subjugation the beautiful game once suffered under the weight of India’s cricket obsession, enjoying grassroots popularity only in places like Goa, West Bengal and Kerala. But a slickly produced football tournament isn’t going to do it for India.
“You need a playing philosophy, principles, patience on a daily basis and five to 10 years,” said French football manager Gerard Houllier at a football conference in 2012. “Five ingredients are indispensable if you want to revolutionise your football: Scouting, state-of-the-art facilities, specialist coaches, adopted programmes for the different age ranges and successful professionalisation.”
The former Liverpool coach masterminded French football’s decade-long transformation preceding Les Bleus’s 1998 World Cup victory.
Houllier’s prescription—and Kapadia’s perspective—means that India must focus on the problems and design a roadmap to foster a genuine footballing identity.
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