Monday, April 16, 2007

Of Sepp Blatter and Indian sport

FIFA president Sepp Blatter has urged India to focus more on football than cricket.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter on Monday urged cricket-mad India to embrace football, saying the sport had a great future in the land of one billion people."At present we are working on Vision Asia and our plan for India is big. We are saying 'win in India with India'," Blatter told Reuters in an interview. "We want to wake up the sleeping giant. In the 1960s, the national team was good, but India has probably lost its way."

Pah! We know how delusional he can be at times. The guys at Football365 call him Sepptic Bladder, but jokes apart he probably thinks that if a billion people start taking interest, India can become a powerhouse in football. Those thoughts! How innocent! Although his concerns as a football evangelist may be well intentioned, he little realizes how sport functions in India. Yes, he says that restructuring formats of the professional leagues would not change things and makes valid points about more focus on improvements at the grass root level. Which might come as a surprise if you follow football (and more specifically Blatter's ideas) closely. But what misses his view is his ignorance of the very genetic make up of Indians.

All the collective efforts of the system, however efficient or corruption free, would amount to zilch in light of player ineptitude. Take the example of cricket, where money and attention is in abundance. Years of modern fielding drills, presence of world class facilities and top coaches have done little to improve player athleticism. The ongoing cricket world cup has been a glaring case in point where poor fielding and running between wickets - the only athletic aspects of cricket - have been major factors contributing to the demise of the Men in Blue. Athleticism, power and stamina are the main physical requirements of a footballer, apart from technique. Technique is something that can come to a player either naturally and honed with proper training, or with practice. While the cricket team has technically gifted players, they refuse to put those extra yards of effort to set the athletic aspects of their game right. To be honest, we Indians cannot run or dive to save our lives! It is sad, but is it due to our physical make up or are we genetically incapable (by which I mean are we after all a country full of lazy people)? I suppose it may be a combination of both.

Gentle readers, especially those of you who think all this to be utter tosh, I advise you to read till the end before hitting the comments right away. Let's start with those Asian success stories whose physical make up is not very different than ours.

South Korea and Japan. They are not your bulldozers, who can swat you off the pitch. As Guus Hiddink (the former coach of South Korea) said, "What they lack in physical presence, they more than make up with their energy". Yes, whatever one might say about referees helping South Korea to the semis in the 2002 World Cup, they cannot deny the fact that they ran their opponents off the park. Japan is not very different. Their work ethic and effervescence on the pitch makes up deficiencies in height or power.

The Arab/Middle Eastern Nations. They have an almost manic obsession with football. Having spent much of my life in Bahrain I bear first hand witness to their street football (probably not far off from the Brazilians in terms of their obsession). They are definitely more powerful than their far east counterparts, and some Iranian players have even made the cut in the German Bundesliga. The Arabs of course, are by no measure worldwide football powerhouses, but our discussion is more to do with Indian football (and in the broader picture, Indian sport) rising from the atrocious to the mediocre.

African Nations. They are the face of the changing nature of not just football, but sports in general. The success of their race in general (and by race I mean the Blacks. And not in a negative sense.) has been phenomenal. Ask Chelsea to name two players this season without whom their title aspirations would have bitten the dust. They would name Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast and Michael Essien of Ghana. Prime, among reasons of Barcelona looking sluggish this season, has been the absence of their lethal Cameroonian striker, Samuel Eto'o. Look at the number of black players in Basketball and now, increasingly in American Football. Look at the effect the Williams sisters have had on women's tennis. I don't want to get started on track and field events. It has been no scientific secret that Africans and Caucasians are superior physically than their Asian counterparts.

Which brings me to the most important part of the discussion. One of the things that typifies modern sport, which by the way increasingly panders to a crowd obsessed with instant gratification, is the transition of sport from a strong technical focus to a focus on raw power. Tennis saw a change to more powerful synthetic rackets. The astro turf changed the power dynamics of field hockey overnight. The rise of the Africans in football has seen it gradually get more physical than it was few years ago. Ask the Czech Republic, who after a virtuoso masterclass against the USA in the last world cup, were toyed with brutal power by the Ghanaians. It was for heroics from their goalkeeper Petr Cech and some terrible profligacy in front of goal on the part of the Ghanaians that kept Ghana's win margin at 2-0.

All this brings me to the state of affairs in India. To really have a chance to improve, not only in football, but in sports in general in the modern world, being technically gifted is not enough. The desire to do the 'donkey work' and the need to build up on strength is equally important. Sometimes physical abilities can even overshadow technical deficiencies. For India to really go up the rankings in football the desire has to be accompanied by that extra bit of muscle, as the title of the excellent article on Cricinfo by Jayaditya Gupta goes, 'Shape up or Ship out'. Yes, dear readers, the advent of Twenty20 makes even cricket a highly power-and-fitness oriented game. So dear Blatter, your words of advice are well taken, but given the current state of affairs, don't expect even cricket to stay up on our country's sporting radar.


  1. I don't know zilch about sports in general, however, something that you haven't mentioned at all - (and maybe deliberately) - what about the money? Well, if somehow they can manage to increase the popularity of football among the masses, they can hope to get their hands at some of the bounty - the kind cricket has in its bag, seeing how practically it's Indian sponsors that run the ICC...

  2. blatter isnt being delusional.. he's doing his job and trying to get a big population to "embrace" football so that more money can flow towards FIFA. I'm sure he knows that the quality of Indian football will still be pathetic..

  3. [Gee]
    As you rightly assumed, I deliberately did not bring in the issue of money. Indian sponsors 'run' ICC today. But in light of poor performances they might be hesitant in the future.
    Yeah, well! I grant him that much, this time though. Just that he's made plenty of bird-brained remarks and suggestions for the running of football in the past, that I couldn't help but take a dig at him. :)
    Although all he cares is for money to flow into FIFA and also undermine club football which we all know (at least the european ones) function at a higher level and quality than international football. But that debate could be put to another day!