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. 


Riyad Mahrez comes of age at Manchester City in search for glory

Updated 16 November 2018
0

Riyad Mahrez comes of age at Manchester City in search for glory

  • Riyad Mahrez signed for City in a $76.6 million move
  • All eyes were on how Pep Guardiola’s only summer signing would add an extra edge to a record-breaking side

MANCHESTER: It took eight games for Riyad Mahrez to show why Manchester City paid a club record £60 million ($76.6 million) for his services.
All eyes were on how Pep Guardiola’s only summer signing would add an extra edge to a side that broke records on the way to claiming the Premier League title last season.
The Algerian winger came off the bench just past the hour mark against Cardiff two months ago and slid home his first City goal from close range before curling in a second with a fine left-foot finish.
The brace provided lift-off for the 27-year-old and his confident displays since have quickly dispelled any doubts that he would struggle to adapt to a system under Guardiola that demands commitment as well as class.
For Mahrez, he has been working to fulfil this footballing dream ever since he was a youngster practicing his skills on the streets of Paris suburb Sarcelles, encouraged by his late father Ahmed.
“I’m proud,” he says of an inspiring journey that began professionally in the French Second Division with Quimper in 2009, then at Le Havre a year later, before joining Leicester City for just £400,000 in 2014.
“It’s not easy to arrive here (at City), to come to a club like this. You need to work very hard to get here and when you do it’s not the final thing.
“You still need to work even more, to perform, to be humble, and to try to go higher. Of course, I want to do even better.
“I didn’t feel any pressure when I came because of the price, I don’t think about this stuff.
“I’m feeling good now at City, playing good at the moment and we are winning games. But it’s not finished yet and we need to keep going. The season is very long and we all have to keep going like this.”
While Mahrez has already won the league title with Leicester during a fairytale 2015-16 season that also saw him crowned the PFA Player of the Year, he remains ambitious and convinced he can still improve.
A yardstick has perhaps been set by Liverpool’s Egyptian frontman Mohamed Salah, who took his game to another level with 44 goals last season, winning the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards and named third in the 2018 Best FIFA Men’s Player.
“Salah had a very good season. And we have a good team, we can score a lot of goals and I hope to do more, like he has done,” Mahrez told Arab News exclusively.
“But the most important thing is that we keep on winning as a team, and I’m going to try to help the team to do this, to score goals, make assists.”
The performances of Mahrez, who has claimed four more goals since the Cardiff match, and eight-goal Salah on Merseyside could well be integral to how their clubs eventually fare in this campaign.
Both teams are unbeaten in the league after 12 games with City two points clear of Liverpool, a lead confirmed by the impressive 3-1 win over neighbors United in the recent Manchester derby.
But Mahrez knows the mesmerising manner in which they have roared to the top will mean nothing if they are not there next May.
“The derby was special, a good atmosphere, a good win, I’m very happy,” he said after his first experience of the rivalry.
“But it’s not that because we beat United we are going to win the league. You can’t think like that, there’s still a long way to go and we have to keep focus.
“We have a good team, we are playing well. We just need to keep working hard for each other and we know we are going to be there at the end of the season. That’s the target.
“I won the title with Leicester, but I came here to win more trophies.
“I’m not going to say I’m going to win this or that, but of course this is a club that wants to win trophies. Win the Premier League, I don’t know. Win the Champions League, I don’t know.
“But we are going to make everything we can to try to do that. That’s the challenge for us.”