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Small Guam teaches India big lesson

Indian football is more often than not an antithesis for good results. They show plenty of promise, raise expectations of a good show, and then fall to a new low. India, a country of 1.2 billion people lost 2-1 to Guam, a country that has a population of 1,60,000. That means, for every person in Guam there are 7,500 in India. Now let that sink in.

India showed plenty of fighting spirit in their 1-2 loss to Oman last week, and that got everyone’s attention. And so they expected that Guam, ranked lowly 174th in the world, won’t be much of an obstacle for India.

But when Guam took a 2-0 lead in the 62nd minute of their Asian World Cup qualifying match for the FIFA 2018 World Cup against India, Twitteratti went into a frenzy. The same fans who backed the team in defeat, no longer showed any remorse. Adding to their frustration was that the match wasn’t telecast live. They couldn’t stomach the fact that India were beaten and outplayed by the smallest footballing nation in Asia and that the Blue Tigers would need to win all of their next games to stand a chance of qualifying.

But does size of the country really matter? The Central American island country of Costa Rica is a case in point. By reaching the quarterfinal of the FIFA 2014 World Cup, they’ve shown that small nations cannot be taken for granted.

The question really is — how did Guam become a better footballing nation than India? (India previously beat them 4-0). For the record, the last time Guam played World Cup qualifiers – in 2000 – it conceded 35 goals in two matches and didn’t score at all. This time around, it has two wins and six points from two matches.

“The problem is that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is focussing on the wrong side of the pyramid,” says Derrick Pereira, coach of Salgaocar FC. “They’ve roped in excellent coaches at the top. They’ve brought in glamour with the ISL. Players at the top are taken excellent care of. But what they don’t realise is that all this will be of no use if the players at the grassroots level and teenagers are not taken care of and given proper guidance. You need top-level coaches at the bottom of the pyramid. At the top, you cannot change much,” said Pereira.

And that’s what Guam did better than India. They hired Gary White, a former Bognor Regis player as their coach in 2012. White is one of 16 coaches on a Football Association scheme created to boost the number of English coaches in the Premier League. More importantly, they focussed on youth development. Local leagues (mens and womens) are popularised. Even school tournaments get a mention on Guam Football Association’s website www.guamfa.com.

Now, most of their players ply their trade in American leagues, including the Major League Soccer (MLS), where there are exposed to top-quality football. They also have training camps abroad.

Not to say that the AIFF isn’t doing anything at all towards youth development. They’ve started taking the U-19 I-League seriously and conduct many programmes in various cities. They’ve made it compulsory for I-League teams to have youth academies and field U-23 players.

“It’s a process. The AIFF should have cared about this long time ago. They’ve started becoming professional now. Look at Bengaluru FC. With a professional set up, they won the I-League in the first season and were runner-up in the second. Six of the India’s starting eleven players were from the team. That speaks volumes for itself. They showed that India have the quality and if you search in the right places and train seriously, you can achieve anything,” Pereira asserts.

India coach Stephen Constantine was lauded for handing six players their debut in the game against Oman, but Pereira feels it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “The players had less than a week of training. Most of them hadn’t played together previously. So they lacked good communication, and that’s what went wrong for us in the end.”

Abhishek Yadav, former India player and current director of national team scouts says the problem is that India have only a few top-quality forwards. And that’s due to the foreigners in the I-League. “You don’t many Indians upfront. Naturally coaches want best results, so most of the foreign signings are strikers. Ultimately, that is affecting the national team.”

So what’s the immediate remedy for Indian football? Perreira puts it aptly: “The Indian team needs to have a long training camp. The youth should be taken for exposure trips, and the focus should be on grassroots.”

Date Opponent Result
June 16, 2015 Guam Guam 2-1 India
June 11, 2015 Oman India 1-2 Oman
March 17, 2015 Nepal Nepal 0-0 India
March 12, 2015 Nepal India 2-0 Nepal
June 6, 2014 Palestine India 2-3 Palestine

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