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. 


Tunisia told to forget about England defeat ahead of Belgium clash

Updated 22 June 2018
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Tunisia told to forget about England defeat ahead of Belgium clash

  • Tunisia still confident despite last-gasp defeat to England on Monday.
  • Eagles of Carthage come up against highly fancied Belgium.

LONDON: Nabil Maaloul has called on Tunisia to forget about the defeat to England and concentrate on the task at hand: Beating Belgium today.
The Eagles of Carthage lost 2-1 in their opener to England on Monday to leave them needing to get a result against Eden Hazard and Co. in Moscow. Getting a result against the highly fancied Belgians will not be easy, not least because they looked sharp during their 3-0 victory over Panama.
But Maaloul is certain his side can make their mark in Russia, having held England at bay for all bar the last minute.
“If we had got a draw it would have been an excellent result for us (against England), but hopefully this will lead to higher levels of concentration in the coming games,” Maaloul said.
Tunisia will not make life easy for Belgium as they seek to provide a bright spot in a poor World Cup for African sides, with Egypt and Morocco already out.
“We lost a battle, but not the war,” Tunisian forward Fakhreddine Ben Youssef said of the England game.
The Belgians want to win at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow to avoid making their final group game against England on June 28 a make-or-break qualification affair.
Romelu Lukaku netted twice in the victory over Panama, but bar the scoreline, the match was notable for the rough treatment dished out to Hazard. The Belgium playmaker was tightly marked and occasionally clattered by Central Americans.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez hopes the Chelsea player will not get the same treatment from Tunisia.
“It is a worry that in any of those tackles he could really get hurt,” said Belgium’s Spanish coach.
“It doesn’t worry me if that is just their way of trying to stop him.”
History favors the Belgians. They are yet to lose to African opposition at a World Cup, while Tunisia have never beaten a European side at a finals.
The experienced Oussama Haddadi is set to replace Ali Maaloul at left-back in the Tunisian defense and Martinez saw plenty of danger for his team in the north Africans’ opening 2-1 defeat to England.
“They have a lot of bravery and they’re very dynamic,” Martinez said. “The players have a good understanding between each other and they can bring energy and intensity on counter-attacks. They play direct, efficient football.”
After seeing Lukaku and Dries Martens grab the goals against 
Panama, Hazard wants to add some goals of his own.
Hazard, whose younger brother Thorgan is also in a squad considered to be Belgium’s best for decades, is aware of the thirst for success back home.
“We knew it before the tournament. People say that Belgium would win every game but it’s not that simple,” said Hazard. “We want to win, we won the first game and have another one Saturday against Tunisia. We take it game after game.”
Belgium, ranked third in the world, reached the quarterfinals of Brazil 2014 and are aiming to match their previous best of reaching the semifinals at Mexico 1986.
There was some good news for Martinez on Thursday when Barcelona center-back Thomas Vermaelen trained for the first time in Russia.
Likewise Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, who like Vermaelen is 32, is expected to return on Friday.