With the resignation of Bob Houghton Indian football once again stands at the crossroads with its own unique set of challenges to address. The debate will begin once again as to the relative merits of an Indian or a foreign coach, and of the style of football that is best suited to the Indian player. As the rest of the planet continues to develop and refine its football to ever more sophisticated levels, India can’t afford to stand still and contemplate the meaning of life in its own little universe. There is a saying: ‘crisis is change trying to take place’ - now is the time for change.
Shortly after Bob Houghton was appointed I was talking to Jon Rudkin, Academy Director at Leicester City, who had worked with the India u17’s in Kolkata and at City’s Academy. Jon considered Bob an outstanding coach. One of the difficulties Bob faced however was that as the national coach he was working with a ‘finished product’ – by the time they came to him the players had been through their key developmental years. Their potential had been defined by the system in which they had been brought up. They were prisoners of a process that systematically failed to make the most of their raw ability.
At the same time, football in India is constrained by the power of cricket. It saturates media coverage, it swamps the TV channels, and it sucks up advertising and sponsorship revenues – and that was before the IPL. Central to this was the India national cricket team – with the demise of hockey and the failure of football the nation unites to find its pride in the performance of its cricket team. That you wouldn’t need the fingers of two hands on which to count the other contenders doesn’t matter. It’s still the ‘world’ cup...and in 1986 India had won it, and has now just won it again.
While on the one hand cricket starves football (and other sports) of resources, on the other hand it sets the expectation and the entry fee. To compete with cricket the India national football team had to be a ‘world-class’ power. Only then would it garner the mass national support that would unlock the media coverage to promote it, and access the associated sponsorship and advertising revenues. If football in India was to progress, it had to have an India team that at the very least could compete against the best in Asia.
The challenge Bob faced was to provide a successful India team using players who had been brought up in a system that had failed them. India may have the desire to play possession football in the style of Spain but it doesn’t have the players with the technical ability to do that. Instead a system has to be used which is ‘effective’. It may be more direct, less possession based, less technically demanding but more consistent with the capabilities of the players and so more likely to produce results. To prepare for the Asian Cup Bob was given unprecedented resources and time with the players, but in the end he was always destined to ‘fail’ if measured against the expectations of a cricket-crazy ‘world-class’ nation.
So what now for India? The starting point has to be a change in expectation, not in terms of the destination but in accepting a more realistic timeframe for getting there. Let’s understand and accept the distance that needs to be covered but recognise as well the potential that India has. Disproportionately male, disproportionately young, one sixth of the worlds’ population: logic defies anyone who suggests there isn’t a world-class football team in there somewhere! The challenge is to find it given the sheer scale of India, of the numbers and geography involved...
If the present players can’t play to the level and in the style of Spain then perhaps the younger ones can – the Spanish, like Indians, are not the tallest team in the world but they are still European champions and World Cup winners. India should also note the rise of Japan – physically smaller players, technically increasingly good, and with fantastic work and team ethics. To move from where we are now to where we want to be is however, not quick or simple. Let’s accept that there will be pain in the process of change and give the new national team manager a much broader remit, with a longer timeframe, and more willingness to accept defeats and setbacks along the way.
Perhaps we also need to look more at the remit of the next national coach. India needs qualified, experienced and capable coaches, and longer-term the vast majority of these will be Indian. India needs academies and soccer schools, it needs playing fields and indoor centres, and it needs to be playing football in schools the length and breadth of India. To some extent Bob Houghton had little choice other than to ‘sacrifice’ the I-League in favour of the national team: the new national coach should have this conflict removed by being given responsibility for the overall development of football coaching in India.
This should go beyond the German example of getting club coaches ‘in-sync’ with the way the national team wants to play, to include overseeing coach education and development programs for I-League coaches, identifying and developing ‘raw’ elite coaching talent, and for establishing a framework for the education of coaches and teachers in schools. It would also include taking responsibility for the selection and coaching of elite young players, and educating coaches who perform these functions including at club/academy level.
What is perceived as the perpetual failure of Indian football is not the failure of any individual national head coach but of a system that needs strengthening and revolutionary change. The coming together of IMG and Reliance Industries, and their acquisition of Indian football rights, is great news in this respect. IMG are world-class in the business of sport. Reliance knows how to make money in India, and how to navigate the territory that needs to be covered to get to where we need to be. Together they form a formidable alliance that is more than capable of transforming Indian football.
When Houghton’s success or failure is being considered let’s start with a realistic analysis of the expectations and constraints he was working under. When considering his successor, let’s think first about what the scale and scope of the job should be, or alternatively, whether or not we should appoint a Technical director to work alongside the national coach. When we strategise the development of football in India more generally, let’s locate the priorities with a holistic approach, and a long-term perspective, whilst looking for ‘big-wins’ in the short to medium term as well. Whoever the next national coach is, and whatever his remit might be, expect Reliance and IMG to be centrally involved in making these decisions, which has to be a positive. That they are also key players in the IPL adventure, should give us all still more reason for hope.