What the Indian football team can learn from Spain

by Ashish Magotra  Jul 3, 2012 16:19 IST

#Andrés Iniesta   #India   #KickingAround   #Spain   #Xabi Alonso   #Xavi  

In the latest issue of Intelligent Life, Patrick Barclay argues that football, which has conquered the world, is the most ‘morally interesting’ sport. His argument hinges on one thing.

“Football is universal in every way. Unlike basketball or weightlifting, it can be played to a high standard by people of every shape and size. It appeals to both sexes (notably in the United States) and does not rely, like golf or tennis or equestrianism or most other sports, on pricey equipment or particular terrain.”

However, his arguments would fall flat in India. India has everything that playing football needs. It has open grounds, a huge population, the sport is well-entrenched in the country – the Durand Cup is the third oldest cup competition in the world, behind the English and Scottish FA Cups, and in parts of India, the following for football borders on the maniacal.

Andres Iniesta, Pepe Reina, Cesc Fabregas celebrate the triumph. AP

Andres Iniesta, Pepe Reina, Cesc Fabregas celebrate the triumph. AP

But when you watch them play on the football pitch, you can’t help but wonder why they are so bad.

Former coach Bob Houghton used to say that India must follow the Japan template. In essence, the J-League, which began in Japan in 1993, ‘concentrated on bringing on taller, bigger players.’ But we beg to differ especially after seeing how Spain have ruled the world in recent years. If India needs to take its lessons from anyone then it has to be Spain.

Xavi – The Architect – is 5’7”. Andrés Iniesta, who was the man of the match in the final, is also 5’7”. David Silva, who scored the first goal in the final, is also 5’7”. Xabi Alonso adds some height to the set-up and is 6’0”. Cesc Fabregas is 5’9”. Jordi Alba, who made that brilliant run from the back, is just 5’5”.

Yes, they have a few tall players like Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique but almost all of their attacks are built up by the ‘small’ guys. And one guesses India can pick up a thing or two from them.

Spain's success is based on diversity
For a long time, the Spanish game had a fundamental insecurity. The Italians had their defensive game, the Dutch had Total Football, the British had the long ball, the Brazilians had Samba, the Argentines had pedigree and Maradona. What did Spain have? Nothing. They addressed this by opening themselves up to external influences. Not just getting foreign coaches but also absorbing their ideologies. The key was understanding the influences. So instead of just hiring foreign coaches, India needs to figure out what works for it as a team too.

If you can pass the ball well...
Spain averaged 681.6 passes per 90 minutes at Euro 2012, over 100 more than they did at the 2010 World Cup (588) and the most by a team in the history of the European Championship since 1980 (Germany 555 in 2012). Now a majority of these passes were not high balls. They were played along the ground and that is what India needs to do as well. Why thump in crosses when there is no one there to make use of them?

Coaching needs to be good at all levels
All the youngsters who come into the Barcelona senior set-up are thoroughly schooled in ‘Tiki-Taka’ tactics from their age group football days. And that’s precisely what the Spanish team uses as well. The fact that even new players coming into the system know what is expected of them means that it’s easier to settle in. India, on the other hand, has no consistency in coaching. Everyone seems to do their own thing and then the national coach also wants to employ his own set of tactics. The results are disastrous.

Look beyond yourself
So much of what you see on the football fields in India is about trying to impress someone. The crazy dribble, the powerful shot, the quick sprint – it’s all about trying to impress some scout. But with Spain it is all about the team. “For me, it’s not that important to score goals,” Andrea Iniesta said after the final. “It’s not the most important thing. It’s always been like this for me. It doesn’t matter who scores the goals. It’s not even important if you win the Ballon d’Or.” In a sense, Spain has regressed to the basic essence of the game, fun and creativity. India needs to do the same.

One final thing...
Spain were the under-achievers of World football for a long time. They would be brilliant at the club level and then fail as a nation. It happened over and over again. So much so that people gave up hope. Then things changed and how. Considering how long Indian football has been down in the dumps, it's important for us to hold on to that hope too.