Friday, September 18, 2009

So, What Is India's Excuse?

This is the flip side of the previous post, about countries with tiny populations getting to the World Cup.

Let's spend a bit of time, in the next few posts, contemplating why several countries with enormous populations not only won't be making the World Cup, they didn't get close.

Take India. Please.

A country with 1.17 billion people went out in the first round of Asian qualifying for South Africa 2010. India lost a home-and-home series with Lebanon by an aggregate of 6-3. That would be the same Lebanon that has been racked, off and on, by internal violence the past few years. Yet India was swamped by the Lebanese, and it wasn't an upset. Lebanon was seeded 13 from among 43 Asian nations; India was seeded No. 28. Just behind the Maldives, just ahead of Singapore.

How it that possible? The subject is a big one, and we won't get to the bottom of it here, but we can skim over the salient points.

--Soccer is not the national game. That would be cricket, a sport at which India is among the world's elite. Field hockey, despite a decline in interest, probably ranks ahead of soccer, too. Two authors look at the phenomenon in a book entitled "Goalless: The Story of a Unique Footballing Nation" ... and here is a link to a review of that book.

--A perception that Indians are not interested in a sport in which they are awful. India is 149th in the world in the most recent FIFA rankings.

--Television. In this blog post, a writer from India suggests that successes in cricket and failures in soccer occurred at a critical point in India's television history, in the early 1980s, and that the subsequent TV-generated reinforcement boosted cricket and disappointment crippled soccer.

--A bad and ineffectual domestic soccer league. The National Football League (the other NFL, that is) features teams that play to small crowds and uses players who are, as one local critic put it, "third-tier Nigerians and fourth-tier Brazilians." The local league, then, does little or nothing to foster enthusiasm for the game.

--A thoroughly inept national soccer federation. The results would seem to be enough to bear out this contention, but in this rather unwieldy essay, the author seems to suggest India, as a country, does a poor job of organizing sports of any sort. (Having seen Indian track athletes finish far behind in preliminary heats at the Olympics, I can vouch for Indian failures in the Olympic movement, at the least.)

Twenty or 30 years ago, it was possible to argue that India's ineptitude on the athletic field was a function of its grinding poverty. But now, with estimates that as many as 300 million Indians recently have climbed into the middle class, that "too poor to play" analysis seems inoperable.

For whatever reason, or reasons, India is not producing elite players. Check this wikipedia entry on Baichung Bhutia, considered the best Indian soccer player of the past generation. Bhutia, however, has played very little outside India, and when he went to England to try his luck with third-tier club Bury ... he didn't exactly shine, scoring three goals in three seasons. Then went back to India.

What makes India and soccer a more perplexing issue are claims that India actually was semi-competent in the sport a half-century ago. Its "golden age" typically is described as having occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. That would include gold medals in soccer at the Asian Games of 1951 and 1962, and a runner-up finish (to Israel) in the Asian Football Confederation championship of 1964.

India has never done anything to qualify for a World Cup, though it was invited to the 1950 World Cup when its regional opponents decided not to field teams. However, FIFA required Indian players to wear shoes, and India pulled out of the 1950 World Cup because, apparently, several of its players insisted on playing barefoot.

Thus, India is perhaps the only country in soccer history to lose interest in the sport. Several countries came late to the sport -- the United States and Japan among the most prominent -- but India stands almost alone among countries that were at least passably competent once upon a time ... and now are not.

And no one seems to care. Which probably is the bottom line of the entire discussion.

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