Indian football team’s Asian Games campaign came to an end when they were comprehensively outplayed by Japan in the pre-quarter finals. With two defeats against West Asian heavyweights Kuwait and Qatar, and a sensational victory over Singapre, India did well to reach the knock-out stage of this prestigious tournament after 28 years. However, Japan proved to be a team from a different universe altogether, as they thrashed the Indian colts by 5-0 margin.
The way this young team fought tooth and nails against Kuwait in their opening encounter, speaks a lot about the potential of this young team. A defensive lapse and a goalkeeping error had cost the match for India, but the performance of the organized Indian midfield made even the rival coach to shower praise on them. Captain Joaquim Abrahanches and playmaker Jewel Raja Sheikh deserve special mention here.
In the second match against Qatar, India’s inexperience was clearly evident, as despite leading till the 82th minute, Sukhwinder’s boys conceeded 2 goals in last 10 minutes of the game against the Doha Asiad’s Gold medal winners to eventually go down by 1-2 margin. Defender Dharmaraj Ravanan scored India’s only goal of the game – expertly diverting a Joaquim Abranches free-kick. He also led the defence from the front with three goal-line clearances and was clearly the pick of the Indian players.
In the do or die encounter against Singapore in the third and last group league match, the Men in Blue produced a scintillating performance and whipped Singapore 4-1 to ensure a berth in the knock-out stage as one of the four best 3rd-placed teams. Jewel Raja, Balwant Singh, Jibon Singh and Manish Mathani registered their names in the Asiad score sheet in that game.
1. By qualifying for the knock-out stage without any big names in the squad, the Indian youngsters showed that Indian football’s future is in bright hands. The fighting spirit showed by the youngsters is a great attribute and if they are groomed properly, Indian football can reach greater heights.
2. The emergence of players like Joaquim Abrahanches, Manish Mathani, Jewel Raja et al is another positive sign. They were always talented, but a lack of proper international exposure was hindering their development. The experience of playing in the Asian Games will serve them well.
3. The fact that team India, comprising of only Under-23 players, did qualify for the pre-quarters, is bound to make football fans to keep an eye on their progress. Indian football needs awareness among common people and the best way to attract supporters is to perform above their expectations – and this young team did just that.
1. The campaign has brought to light the ineffective administration pertaining to Indian football. There was no coordination at all between this Under-23 squad and the senior team management. The Under-23 coach Sukhwinder Singh wanted the services of few Under-23 players, who got senior team call up for the preparation of 2011 Asia Cup; but Indian senior team coach Bob Houghton refused to let them go. Players like Arindam Bhattacharjee, N.S Manju, Sushil Kumar Singh could have been ideal inclusions to this young brigade but lack of proper administrative guidelines and negligence from the AIFF authority could not convince the reluctant senior team coach to release them.
No one is denying that preparation for Asia Cup is a prime objective at this moment, but the pride of the nation was at stake in the Asian Games too. Participating in the games would not have hampered the progress of the players; moreover, it would have been better than warming the substitute’s bench for the senior team’s friendlies.
2. The selection of the squad for the Asian Games could have been more transparent. There was no apparent reasons for omitting the likes of Sanju Pradhan or Robin Singh from the team. Manish Mathani, a natural central midfielder, was made to play out wide as Indian team did not have a quality winger. Sanju Pradhan, a proven talent for East Bengal, could have slipped into the role with ease. Similarly, Robin Singh could have provided the coach with more attacking threats upfront.
3. As per the Asian Games rule book, India could have selected three senior players in the squad, which would have provided the coach with an excellent blend of experience and youth. While most of the teams made full use of that regulation, Indian selectors choose to include relatively less experienced players like Denzil franco, Joaquim Abrahanches and Karanjit Singh in this quota; while there are much better and proven talents available in the country compared to these three. Even if we discard the senior players busy with the Asia Cup camp, players like Mehtab Hussain, Denson Devadas, Snehashish Chakraborty could have made all the difference to the team’s fortune.
4. Although Sukhwinder Singh is regarded as a highly rated coach, some of his tactical decisions raise a question mark over his competency to be the coach of this young Indian team. This Under-23 team’s defence was always a weak link, but yet in their first match against Kuwait, Sukhwinder Singh opted for an ultra defensive tactic. The strategy backfired, as the ultra defensive Indian outfit could not create anything notable in the entire match and a couple of defensive lapses allowed Kuwait to take the game away from India.
In the second match against a strong Qatar side, Sukhi changed the tactics and went on with the strength of the team. Result – India displayed excellent attacking football and took an early lead. Then again Sukhi made the same tactical blunder and went into a defensive mould to preserve the solitary goal lead and eventually lost the match by 2-1 margin.
In the survival battle against Singapore, India attacked right from the word go and the attacking football ultimately paid for India as they thumped Singapore by a 4-1 margin. There is a popular saying in football – “To play to the team’s strength” – but either Sukhi was unaware of that saying or the lessons from the group stage were not enough for him, as the coach again deployed a defensive unit in the pre-quarters against Japan and paid the ultimate price for it.
Although team India did a wonderful job by qualifying for the Asian Games knock-out stage, but with proper planning and efficient execution, they could have achieved further. It’s high time that AIFF invests time and money for developing the promising young talents and chalks out the right strategy to groom them. It’s evident that there is no lack of talent, but the need of the hour is to convert the talent into results. The efficiency of the players is not a problem here, but the efficiency, or rather the lack of it, of the administrators is surely the biggest problem for Indian football.
India 4-1 Singapore