FIFA World Cup 2018 has important lessons for India — if players, administrators keep an open mind

Dreams that don’t let one sleep create legends.

On the night of 25 June 1983, a 10-year-old boy with a curly mop of hair — he was a John McEnroe fan — danced in the streets of Mumbai (then Bombay) along with his friends to celebrate India’s unexpected triumph in the Prudential World Cup.  He wasn’t a cricket fan then but dreamt that he would one day hold the World Cup trophy, just like Kapil Dev had done at Lord’s that fateful night.

It took 28 years for Sachin Tendulkar’s dream to manifest but it did eventually, on the night of 2 April 2011. In the interim, he made a place for himself in cricket’s hall of fame and came to be known as one of the finest — if not the best — batsmen of all time. He was also conferred with the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award.

Over the cool January evenings of 1982, a lanky 14 year-old sat watching India play in the hockey World Cup — held in Mumbai — on the community television set in Khadki’s Ordnance Factory. It did not matter to him that India finished fifth in the tournament; he had eyes only for the mercurial Indian forward, Mohammed Shahid. He dreamt of playing like the ‘magician’ he had seen on TV.

That World Cup had inspired Dhanraj Pillai to emulate his idol and to represent India at four Olympics, four World Cups, four Champions’ Trophy tournaments and four Asiads. He is said to be one of the finest forwards the world has seen and has been conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, besides the Padma Shri.

Do we see an adolescent somewhere in India’s small towns dreaming of becoming the next Cristiano Ronaldo or the next Lionel Messi, inspired by the FIFA Football World Cup matches of 2018? When Tendulkar hung up his boots a few years ago, Virat Kohli — who is now one of the best batsmen in the world — in an emotional moment, is said to have walked over to him and handed him a small gift. “My dad had given me these threads. He had asked me to present them to the person who inspires me,” he told the master batsman. Do we see an Indian footballer saying that to either Messi or Ronaldo in the coming years?

 FIFA World Cup 2018 has important lessons for India — if players, administrators keep an open mind

There is a lot India could learn from the FIFA World Cup matches of 2018. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

“The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances,” said Aristotle. MS Dhoni came from a humble background, grew up in a small town and rose above his circumstances to become a legend. “I would watch Tendulkar bat on TV and put it off when he got out,” says Dhoni. It was ironic that India won the World Cup of 2011 with Dhoni as skipper and Tendulkar there to guide and inspire him.

Indian football officials would be sadly mistaken if they thought that the Indian Super League or the I-League would produce world-class footballers in India. Sadio Mane of Senegal became an international star despite his father forbidding him to play football as a child. Mo Salah of Egypt would travel three hours every day from his hometown of Nagrig to practice with his club team, El Mokawloon. These are just two out of the many stories of commitment and determination in the World Cup of 2018.

There may be so many youngsters all over the country, in small towns and big, who would want to be like Salah and Mane. It is here that the grassroots programme of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has to start working. Producing great players is the key to booking a place in the top 50 in FIFA rankings; not just running cash-rich leagues.

Singapore, one of the most advanced city-states in the world, is ranked around 170 in world football. It has a larger population than Croatia, Serbia and Iceland, all of whom qualified for World Cup 2018. The nation’s football league began in 1996 with the aim of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It failed miserably, despite the fact that star footballers were imported into the league and some of the top Asian clubs were allowed to participate, to make it more competitive. Where did Singapore fail? In inspiring young Singaporeans to dream of becoming the best footballers in the world!

Does the AIFF see a message there? I just hope they do.

Supposedly the best 32 teams on this planet participate in the World Cup finals. But once the group stage of the tournament begins, the FIFA rankings go for a toss. This is as true of World Cup 2018, as it has been in most of the past tournaments. How else could one account for host Russia’s (ranked 70th) trouncing of 67th ranked Saudi Arabia 5-0 and the drubbing of Egypt 3-1, ranked 45th? Or, for that matter, Japan, ranked 61st, qualifying for the round of 16 by beating Colombia ranked 16th and playing out a draw with Senegal ranked 27th?

In fact, the biggest surprise of the 2018 World Cup came from 57th ranked South Korea, who beat world champs, Germany 2-0 in a crucial tie that eliminated the holders at the group stage. Therefore, once a team qualifies for the World Cup finals, everything rests on form and strategy. Reputations count for naught.

India could take a cue from these matches. Sunil Chhetri’s team may not be amongst the top rankers, at present, in Asia. But that shouldn’t stop them from beating higher ranked teams with better planning, grit and steadfastness. If the South Koreans could counter-punch the high-flying Germans, why can’t the Indians surprise a few Asian teams? It would only take reinventing, strategising and finding new ways of doing things.

Four years ago, hosts Brazil were trounced 7-1 by the Germans in the World Cup semi-finals. The match was seen as a ‘national shame’ in Brazil. In the World Cup of 2018, coach Tite, after studying the playing style of the best teams in Europe, ditched the Brazilian individualistic and free-flowing game and introduced an energetic game that focused on creating numeric advantages in key areas of the pitch. The Brazilians are now through to the round of 16 and are looking good for a place in the finals on July 15.

If the Brazilians — the five-time world champions — can change their style of play and not feel bad about it, surely the Indians could do with some fresh thinking as far as playing formations and strategy are concerned; perhaps, even a change of coaching styles!

There is a lot India could learn from the World Cup of 2018. The players, coaches and the administrators need to have an open mind. What’s more important, they need to have a heart big enough to accept changes.

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and cricket coach, he has also been a football coach at the elite division level and was President, Mumbai District Football Association for three years.

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Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 14:01:16 IST