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

1 / 3
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)
2 / 3
3 / 3
Updated 08 November 2017
0

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. 


Mohamed Salah threatens Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d’Or stranglehold

Updated 25 April 2018
0

Mohamed Salah threatens Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d’Or stranglehold

  • Messi and Ronaldo have won the award for the past ten years
  • Salah has emerged as a genuine rival after scoring 43 goals this season

LIVERPOOL: Mohamed Salah could be the man to finally break the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly at the top of world football after the Liverpool forward burnished his soaring reputation with a mesmerising Champions League performance against Roma.
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi have locked down the Ballon d’Or award for a decade, winning five gongs apiece — for the past seven years they have occupied the top two slots.
But Salah is now second favorite behind Ronaldo for this year’s award after scoring his 42nd and 43rd goals of the season in a thrilling 5-2 victory for Liverpool in the Champions League semifinal first leg.
After his first strike against his former club on Tuesday, the man dubbed by fans as the “Egyptian King” stood motionless, hands raised in apology, as bedlam broke out on a night for the ages at Anfield.
Salah’s curling effort arrowed into the top corner with such accuracy his manager Jurgen Klopp labelled it “a genius strike.”
Soon after came the forward’s signature finish, a cute dink over advancing Roma goalkeeper Alisson for his 43rd goal in 47 games for Liverpool.
When Salah, 25, made the move from the Italian capital back to the Premier League just 10 months ago for €42 million ($51 million), there were plenty who felt Roma had got the better deal. Salah after all was a talented player, but who often lacked an end product.
It also came just a few weeks before Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for a world record €222 million revolutionized the transfer market.
The Brazilian’s desire to leave the Catalan giants was tied to his ambition to beat Messi and Ronaldo to the Ballon d’Or by stepping out of Messi’s shadow.
Now, though, it is Salah who has emerged as the pretender to end the Messi-Ronaldo domination by not only scoring the quantity of goals that have become the pair’s trademark but doing it when it really matters, in the latter stages of the Champions League.
“If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it,” urged Klopp, who has been credited with bringing out Salah’s previously untapped potential.
“To be the best in the world you need to do that over a longer period I think, and there are a few others that are not so bad.”
Heavily left-footed, small, speedy and with a low center of gravity, Salah’s characteristics are far more like those of Messi than the muscular goal-machine Ronaldo.
“In a certain light, at certain points, it is possible to glimpse in Salah a little of Messi’s afterglow,” wrote Rory Smith in the New York Times.
And he demonstrated another Messi-like quality in showing no mercy to Roma.
Chasing his first hat-trick in the Champions League, Salah would have been forgiven for going for goal as he bore down on Alisson once more after half-time.
But he showed why he is considered one of the game’s more unselfish superstars by instead creating another two goals for strike partners Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
When Salah left the field to a standing ovation 15 minutes from time, Liverpool led 5-0.
“Unstoppable (when Salah’s on the pitch),” said the back page of The Times.
Two late Roma away goals have at least given the Italians hope of recreating the incredible comeback they staged from a 4-1 first-leg deficit against Barca in the quarter-finals.
For once it is Salah’s turn to lead the way where Messi faltered on his return to the Eternal City next week.
Messi is almost certain to win a La Liga and Copa del Rey double and Ronaldo could lead Real Madrid to a third consecutive Champions League after another bucketload of goals this season.
But Salah is the coming man and after bagging the African and English players’ player of the year crowns, it is hard to back against him also conquering the world.