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. 


Belief running high for Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons

Updated 20 August 2018
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Belief running high for Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons

  • Where others have picked over-aged players, Saudi Arabia, in contrast, have brought their U-21 team
  • Al-Shehri arrived at the Games playing down the importance of results and focusing on performances

JAKARTA: Saudi Arabia’s football team are doing things differently at the Asian Games this month. The three-week tournament is open to players aged under-23, with countries having the option to select three over-age players. The result is hosts Indonesia have selected a 37-year-old naturalized Brazilian and South Korea, whose players can avoid mandatory military service if they win gold, have called upon Heung-min Son, the Tottenham Hotspur forward.
Saudi Arabia, in contrast, have brought their Under-21 team.

Coach Saad Al-Shehri, who has been in charge of the side for three years, does not shy from the fact his Young Falcons are here primarily to gain experience and develop ahead of a crucial U23 Asian Championships, which offers direct qualification to the Olympic Games.

Yet he is also aware the deeper his side go this month, the more it will ultimately benefit the Kingdom’s Tokyo 2020 objective.
“We are playing here with an Under-21 team in a tournament that is for Under-23s,” he said. “But I believe in these players. I worked with them at the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 in Korea and this team is the future of Saudi Arabia. I do not doubt that, and the Federation is in agreement.
“The players need more experience, more games and strong tournaments, but we all believe in them and our work will continue on this path. This is the squad that we want to qualify for Tokyo.”
Al-Shehri arrived at the Games playing down the importance of results and focusing on performances, but after two games in Jakarta, his team sit joint-top of Group F alongside Iran, with whom they drew 0-0 in their opening game. A comfortable 3-0 victory over Myanmar on Friday means progress to the knock-out stages is all but secure, with today’s match against North Korea offering an opportunity to secure an easier Round of 16 draw.
Finalists in 2014, North Korea were expected to prove the most difficult opponent of the group stage, yet a draw with Myanmar and a 3-0 humbling by Iran have altered expectations for both sides. Al-Shehri, who will be without key playmaker Ayman Al-Khulaif today through suspension, is now expected to make several changes to avoid fatigue in what will be the Young Falcons’ third game in five days.
“I have 20 players and trust them all,” Al-Shehri told Arab News. “I am confident we can play a good game against North Korea because we have players hungry and waiting to take their chance. Everybody is ready to play and be involved. Whether we win or lose… all we want is to play games. We need to play more games to improve and the further in the tournament we go, the more games we play, so if we get to the final it’s very good for us regardless. Every single game we play between now and the Tokyo qualifiers is very important for us.”
Al-Khulaif, 21, has been instrumental in his side’s results so far, proving a constant outlet on the right of midfield and drawing nine fouls, including two penalties. The Al-Ahli playmaker made his Pro League debut last season, coming on as a 90th minute substitute for Taiser Al-Jassem against Ohod, and will hope this tournament can help him catch the eye of new Al-Ahli boss Pablo Guede.
Forced to sit out today’s match, he is looking to the positives. “I am sad to miss the next game, but I trust fully in my teammates to get a good result and it gives me a chance to rest and, inshallah, prepare better for the knock-out stages.”