India’s performance during the last week showed that despite the success and glamour of the Hero Indian Super League, the national team are still a novice in international football.
India lost three successive matches in the AFC U-19 championships, despite an intensive training schedule. They were routed 0-7 by UAE and even lost 0-1 and 0-2 to Palestine and Afghanistan respectively, both countries besieged by political turmoil.
In the World Cup qualifying Group D matches, India lost their fourth successive match, beaten by Turkmenistan in Ashgabat. Only once before have India made such a dismal start. In the 1993 World Cup qualifiers, India started with a 2-2 draw against Lebanon but then lost five successive matches, 1-2 to Hong Kong, 0-3 and 0-7 to South Korea and 1-2 and 0-3 to Bahrain.
In the 1993 qualifiers, India coached by Jiri Pesek (of erstwhile Czecho-slovakia) won just once the return tie vs Hong (3-1) and finished with four points.
The current national squad coached by Stephen Constantine have zero points from four matches. The four remaining matches are against Oman and Iran (away) and Guam and Turkmenistan (home). Chances of even a draw in the tough away matches are slim but wins in the home matches could salvage some pride.
The Fifa rankings are a signifier of India’s fall. When the World Cup qualifying draw was made, India were 141 in the rankings ahead of both Turkmenistan (159) and Guam (172). Now after four successive defeats India have slipped to 167 and likely to be in the 170s when the rankings are next released in November.
The blame game is on in full swing. In social media it is being said that heads must roll. There is a cry for both Johnson and Constantine to be replaced. The popular choice is Spanish coach Antonio Lopes Habas, currently in charge of Atletico de Kolkata. However, it is unlikely the All India Football Federation will take a hasty decision.
As always defeat leads to many controversies. Constantine has claimed that he wanted a longer national camp for his players. The ISL clubs had released their players as per Fifa rules four days before the World Cup qualifying match. But India certainly need a longer duration camp as the young squad is not yet adjusted to the rigours of international football.
However this problem could have been avoided if Constantine had demanded a national camp in September when the fixtures of both the ISL and World Cup qualifiers were released earlier this year.
Another bombshell is the release of the Delhi Dynamos trio Robin Singh, Francis Fernandez and Shehnaz Singh for the World Cup qualifiers before their opening ISL fixture against FC Goa. There was a needless spat between Roberto Carlos the Delhi Dynamos coach and Constantine about the release of the players.
Carlos claims that his franchise had bought three tickets for the players to join the India squad in Dubai on their way to Turkmenistan but Constantine did not relent.
The AIFF should be more proactive and ensure that the ISL, I-League clubs and national coaches work in harmony to fulfil the common aim of improving Indian football.