In less than a week’s time the Indian national football team will be playing what could easily be called their biggest test in recent times when they travel to Doha, Qatar to for the AFC 2011 Asian Cup.
The last Monday in the year 2010, saw the AIFF announce the 23-man squad for the tournament. The exclusions of Dempo’s left back Samir Naik and winger Anthony Pereira along with that of Churchill Brothers’ goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya was to be expected as they had failed to recover from the injuries suffered during team India’s two month long camp in Dubai. Losing key players to injury is part and parcel of sports and that’s something fans can understand but the decision of Indian coach Bob Houghton to leave behind last season’s I league’s top scorer Mohammed Rafi, along with the likes of players such as Snehashish, and East Bengal’s duo of Mehtab and Robin Singh has certainly not gone down well with Indian supporters.
The curious case of Mohammed Rafi
What makes Rafi’s omission even more startling is the fact that Indian skipper Bhaichung Bhutia has still not fully recovered from the injury he sustained to his right leg calf muscle and in these circumstances not taking the Churchill brothers striker to Doha, who was also adjudged the best player in the domestic league in 2009-10 can dearly hurt the performance of the Indian national football team in the testing Middle East conditions.
The 28 year old forward from Kerala earned a call into the national team after putting across a string of impressive performances during team India’s Portugal tour last year where he formed a good partnership with Delhi lad Sunil Chhetri after Bhutia was forced to fly back mid way through the tour due to injury.
It is a known fact that Rafi has failed to live up to his expectations in the handful of international friendlies he has played since then but the selection of Sushil Kumar and Abhishek Yadav over him is baffling. After fairing so well in the I league and considering his footballing skills are far superior to the players preferred to him, most football gurus certainly believe that the South Indian striker deserved to be a part of the squad.
Mehtab Hossain misses the bus
Kingfisher East Bengal’s deep lying-midfielder didn’t get a call from the Englishman either. A dead ball specialist, his creativity will be dearly missed by the squad in Doha. He could have formed a formidable partnership with Steven Dias at the center of the field. Called “double-cylinder” for his work rate and stamina he should have been on the flight to Qatar instead of Climax Lawrence who is way past his prime. Along with excellent vision he is known to score some scorchers from long range which could have come in handy for the team during the campaign in Doha as India is pitted against Asian powerhouses.
The fact that he has been compared to Steven Dias speaks volumes about the talent this winger has at his disposal. Chakraborty comes across as a hard but clean tackler – a rarity these days. Providing crosses with pin point accuracy is his specialty. He possess one of the best free–kicks in Indian football at the moment. This Mohan Bagan mid fielder is a fitness freak and rarely gets injured, something which would have allowed him to play the entire ninety minutes had he been in Houghton’s scheme of things.
Where’s Robin, Bob?
Absence of this 20 year old, who is tipped by many to be the next big thing in Indian football, caused a stir among a large chunk of Indian fans. A product of the Tata Football Academy (TFA), he has been playing exceptional football since he landed up at East Bengal and played a pivotal role in the Red and Gold brigade’s triumphs at Federation Cup, Kolkata League and Jubilee Cup. He emerged as the top scorer at Jubilee Cup for his club.
Although just out of his teens, he has proven that he has the appetite for the big games and should have been considered for the tournament. He was instrumental in the historic victory of TFA over giants East Bengal during the 2009 IFA shield group stage and later playing for East Bengal scored a brace against arch rivals Mohan Bagan to clinch the final of the KFL 2010. With teammate Sushil Kumar and Abhishek Yadav turning out to be duds in most of the international friendlies during 2010, the boy from Noida should not have been overlooked.
What could have made the difference at the back
If you have been on the receiving end of a 1-9 and a 0-5 thumping in two back to back matches then it doesn’t take an expert to realize that some serious reinforcements are required at the back. After seeing the way Indian defense leaked goals against the likes of Western Asian powerhouses Kuwait and UAE the selection of Dharmaraj Ravanan who was probably the best Indian defender of the I league season gone by should have only been a formality. Well apparently not, if you happen to be the current coach of the Indian national team.
Why this defender from the south state of Tamil Nadu didn’t make it to the team is difficult to fathom. His calmness, consistency and ability to read the minds of his opponents made him the heart of Mahindra United’s defense. Along with Alaudeen he formed what can arguably be termed the best defensive partnership in I league. He was the part of the India’s squad which lifted the 2009 SAFF cup and his exclusion comes as a puzzler.
What has created even more outrage amongst football fans is seeing the names of Abhishek Yadav and Sushil Kumar in the Indian squad who have consistently flopped on the international circuit this season.
Yadav began his international career on a golden note, when he came off the bench to score the winner in his debut game against Vietnam and in the course helped India to lift LG Cup in 2002. His performances have fizzled out ever since and especially after the arrival of Chhetri he has rarely been chosen in the starting line up as a partner up front to the Sikkimese Sniper. He is by far the tallest striker the men in blue possess but has never really capitalized on his height advantage.
On the other hand naming Sushil Kumar Singh in the squad was even more baffling. The Indian U-23 captain has failed to score in all the international friendlies that he has been a part of this year. Moreover, Sushil played second fiddle to Rafi during their time together at Mahindra United. How he was chosen over Rafi by Houghton is a question only he can and should answer.
If either Chhetri or Bhutia (presuming he returns to fitness) were to suffer an injury during the tournament, their replacements don’t look promising at all.
There’s still a ray of hope
Along with Rafi and the injured trio, young East Bengal striker Baljit Singh Sahni has also failed to make it to the final 23 but thanks to a guideline issued by the AFC all these players, if fit, can still make it to the team as a replacement of any of the 23 named players, 6 hours prior to their team’s first encounter.
“Once the final registration of a minimum of eighteen (18) players and a maximum of twenty-three (23) players have been submitted and received by AFC, Participating Member Associations can still replace any of these players on any grounds, up until six (6) hours before their first Match of the Competition,” stated the AFC issued guideline for the tournament.
Indian football fanatics would seriously be hoping that a certain Mr. Bob Houghton is aware of this guideline and can manage Rafi and the others a much deserved flight ticket to Doha before the 10th of January.