The beautiful game could bowl a bouncer at India’s obsession

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England won the recent Under-17 World Cup held in India, a tournament that attracted record crowds and full stadiums and stirred the country’s love of the game. (AP)
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Updated 08 November 2017
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The beautiful game could bowl a bouncer at India’s obsession

MUMBAI: In March 1951, less than four years after India became an independent nation, the men’s football team won gold at the inaugural Asian Games in New Delhi — beating Indonesia 2-0, Afghanistan 3-0 and Iran 1-0 on their way to the title. They repeated the feat in 1962, seeing off South Korea, who had beaten them in the group stages, in the final.
Earlier that year, the cricket team had gone to the Caribbean and been routed 5-0 in a Test series. To add injury to humiliation, Nari Contractor, the captain, never played for India again after having his skull fractured by a Charlie Griffith bouncer. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that Indian cricket began to be taken seriously. In the summer of 1971, a team captained by Ajit Wadekar won a Test series in England, with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar taking six for 38 at The Oval.
Chandrasekhar, bowling arm withered by an attack of polio in childhood, was no orthodox leg-spinner, and England had no answer to his wiles, especially to a quicker delivery that was nearly unplayable. In that memorable Test, “Ek Mill Reef daalo (Bowl the Mill Reef)” became the rallying cry behind one of Indian sport’s most celebrated triumphs. Mill Reef was the champion thoroughbred who had won the Epsom Derby earlier that summer.
By then, Indian football had begun its slide into irrelevance. Between 1984 and 2011, the team didn’t even qualify for the Asian Cup. In 2011, it was the special pathway created by the AFC Challenge Cup that gave India an opportunity. The defeats to Australia (0-4), Bahrain (2-5) and South Korea (1-4) merely illustrated just how far behind they had fallen.
India will once again be part of the Asian Cup in 2019, thanks to an expanded competition that gives the continent’s lesser lights second chances. But while no one expects miracles from the national side against Asia’s elite in two years’ time, there is an air of optimism around Indian football after an unforgettable 12 months.
The main reason for feeling good was last month’s successful hosting of the Under-17 World Cup, which also marked the first time an Indian team had matched its wits on the FIFA stage. The team lost to the United States (3-0), Colombia (2-1) and Ghana (4-0), but the response to their games in Delhi, not a city known for its football culture, was the first sign that the tournament would leave a mark.
The eventual aggregate for the 52 matches was 1,347,133, a record for a FIFA junior World Cup. A staggering 66,684 crammed into the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata to watch England beat Spain in a memorable final. Nearly as many were present to watch Brazil eclipse Germany in a quarterfinal, while 63,881 saw Rhian Brewster’s hat-trick see off Brazil in the last four.
Also, in October, Bengaluru FC, a team that has been existence for just four years, made a valiant bid to reach the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier club competition, for a second straight season. The city had been lashed by torrential rains in the previous week, and flooded roads had made the already notorious Bangalore traffic even more of a challenge. Despite that, 7,862 turned up at the Kanteerava Stadium to see their heroes in blue take on Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol.
Bengaluru drew 2-2 on the night, losing 3-2 on aggregate, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm and angst in the stands. The name of Albert Roca, the coach who was once Frank Rijkaard’s assistant at Barcelona, was chanted throughout, and the city is now preparing for the team’s maiden season in the Indian Super League (ISL), which kicks off on Nov. 17.
The cricket team is ranked No. 1 in the world in Tests, and just a decimal point behind South Africa in the ODI rankings. Yet, while the Under-17 World Cup was on, the exploits of Virat Kohli (pictured left) and his men were often relegated to the bottom of the sports pages. Football enjoyed pride of place, a state of affairs almost unthinkable in recent years outside of the weeks encompassing the World Cup.
Much still remains to be done. The traditional football heartlands of Bengal, Goa and Kerala aren’t throwing up talented players like they once did — as many as eight of the 21-man squad for the U-17 competition came from the tiny northeastern state of Manipur — and India cannot afford to continue with two national leagues. The most storied clubs in the land — Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — still play in the I-League, and not the ISL.
The glory days of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Indian stars like Sahu Mewalal, Neville D’Souza, Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh and Peter Thangaraj were reckoned to be among the best in Asia, are long gone, but this October revolution has given football fans hope that there is much to look forward to. 


Why Juventus could prove to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s toughest, most rewarding challenge yet

Updated 18 min 53 sec ago
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Why Juventus could prove to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s toughest, most rewarding challenge yet

  • Portuguese superstar has moved to Italian giants in deal worth nearly $120 million
  • Ronaldo scored 450 goals in 438 games for Real Madrid

LONDON: Love him or loathe him, you have to admire Cristiano Ronaldo’s character.
At a time of life when lesser mortals are lured by big paychecks to the likes of Qatar or China, the mercurial Madeiran has opted for what will be his biggest challenge yet at Juventus.
His career over the last decade has been played out under the cloud of the never-ending debate — “Ronaldo or Messi; who is better?”
Thankfully, that circus was quietened somewhat at the recent World Cup. Some flashes of pure brilliance aside, neither player made a big enough impact to lead their respective teams to glory and Messi’s wait for an international trophy goes on.
And, while both players are undeniably in a league of their own, the fact Ronaldo does have a European Championship title under his belt will always tip the argument toward the Portuguese — especially for those who measure greatness in statistics and trophies.
In fairness, Ronaldo’s statistics are mind-boggling. His stint at Manchester United, where he cut his teeth and started to show his potential as a great of the game, was instrumental in the club winning three Premier League titles and their third European crown. His staggering 450 goals in 438 games for Real Madrid saw him become the Spanish giant’s record goalscorer on his way to winning everything under the sun.
But the Premier League and La Liga are leagues in which attacking footballers flourish. With the dawning of wall-to-wall TV coverage, they have both been transformed to entertain the billions of people who tune in every week — and in this day and age, goalscoring superstars win you fans, not defenses.
The art of defending has all-but disappeared and the culture of building a spine through a team has slowly but surely been eroded away. Nobody wants to watch an engrossing, absorbing, end-to-end goalless draw anymore — it is all about 6-5 thrillers.
But not so in Italy.
Serie A, for all its scandals and fall from grace since its heady days of the 1990s, is still an extremely difficult league to win. It is a league in which fans and managers place great emphasis on defending, on building teams from back-to-front (not the other way around) and on the mentality of “you cannot lose if you don’t concede.”
Granted, Juventus have walked Serie A for the past seven seasons; it is to be expected from one of the richest clubs in the world. But rarely have they won it at a canter. Never once have they scored anywhere near 100 goals in a season to win it — unlike Manchester City in last season’s Premier League, or Barcelona and Real Madrid almost every season in the same period.
And not once has Serie A’s top-goalscorer reached the dizzying heights Ronaldo (and Messi) hit in La Liga season after season, nor has it always been a Juventus player claiming the golden boot.
This all points to a monumental challenge for Ronaldo. On paper, he should not find it as easy to score goals in Serie A and with the marked improvement of Napoli, Roma and Lazio recently, nor will it be an easy ride for Juventus to claim an eighth scudetto in a row this year.
So, while Messi prefers to stay in one country and within his comfort zone of the defense-shy Spanish league, if a 30-something Ronaldo succeeds in Italy — or, better yet, guides Juventus to the European glory the fans crave so much — it would be his most remarkable achievement yet.
And it would put the tiresome debate over who is the greatest ever to bed, once and for all.
No contest.