Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles on the Indian football national team in connection to India@75. The writer will cover various aspects of the game during the period between 1948-2022.
It was a night of heartbreak for India in Sharjah on January 14, 2019. Needing only a draw to qualify for the second round of the Asian Cup, India played brilliant football against a strong Bahrain side throughout the encounter before going down by an added-time penalty goal.
The Indian fans were truly crestfallen. India had started the campaign with a bang – an emphatic 4-1 win over skillful Thailand. They played well against hosts UAE in the second outing, but lost 0-2. A draw against Bahrain would have taken India to the next round for the first time in 55 years. It was a typical case of so near and yet so far.
Before the fans could recover from the shock, another piece of news hit them hard. In the press conference after the match, chief coach Stephen Constantine said that he was stepping down from his position. Minutes after the British coach announced his decision, the All India Football Federation, through a social media post, confirmed the resignation had been accepted. It was well past midnight in India by then, but the bosses in Indian football had moved rather swiftly.
Those in the know of things in Indian football weren’t surprised. They knew Constantine’s era was coming to an end. Back in 2016, many strings were pulled within the technical committee before he was appointed the coach.
The honeymoon was soon over. By 2019, the coach’s relationship with top AIFF officials and even some of the senior footballers turned sour, to say the least, for various reasons. Secretly, some officials heaved a sigh of relief when Constantine resigned. To say they were eager to get rid of the coach won’t be an exaggeration.
Constantine wasn’t the first coach to be shown the door quickly despite his reasonably good showings with the national team. In fact, he was lucky that he and the AIFF parted company rather peacefully. Indian football had witnessed far more uglier spats between the national coach and the federation.
Ask any of the former footballers on who they think the best foreign coach India ever had, the opinion will be sharply divided on two names. Footballers from the 1980s always wholeheartedly vote for Serbian Milovan Ciric. The Indian footballers of the 21st century, however, hold a different view for obvious reasons. They think Bob Houghton’s appointment as the national coach in June 2006 was the best thing to happen to Indian football in many years.
Unfortunately, despite their high stature, both left India in disgust. Worst was the way Houghton departed; accused of racially abusing an Indian referee, Houghton had to resign and finally had to engage a lawyer to negotiate his full and final settlement with the AIFF.
Looking back at what happened more than a decade ago, one realizes that Houghton was a victim of circumstances. He was at loggerheads with federation officials almost ever since his arrival in India. They all were looking for an opportunity to throw him out. The incident of racial abuse by Houghton in a friendly tie at Pune came handy.
That the issue was raked up six months after the incident took place was a clear indication the AIFF officials were waiting for the right time to bring down India’s most successful coach in recent years. To remove him on the basis of on-field performance was nearly impossible.
Houghton didn’t do himself any favour by his repeated clashes with AIFF officials once he guided India to historic 2008 AFC Challenge Cup triumph that gave his team a ticket to Asian Cup in 2011 Doha after a gap of 24 years. Houghton said he was simply demanding better facilities for his boys. Federation officials accused him of being unreasonable.
The situation reached its nadir in May 2010 when Houghton threatened to resign unless his contract was extended till 2013. With the Asian Cup only eight months away, the AIFF, led by Praful Patel, had to succumb to the demand –Houghton’s contract was extended with a salary hike.
Houghton’s luck ran out with the racial abuse issue in September 2010. An Indian referee filed a written complaint against Houghton alleging the British coach made abusive and racial remarks on Indian referees while India were playing in Pune. It was a shocking charge– it could have had severe implications if proved right; both Fifa and AFC follow absolute zero-tolerance policy on such matters.
Interestingly, AIFF didn’t act immediately. They kept sitting on the complaint till the Asian Cup was over in January 2011 and then served a show-cause notice to the British coach in March 2011. The federation was clearly not interested in delivering justice. The aim was to remove Houghton. The plan was indeed full-proof and succeeded perfectly. On a weak wicket, Houghton found himself cornered and finally had to put in his papers. In the bargain, Indian national team lost a fine coach.
Milovan didn’t have to face any such racial allegations, but he too left a disappointed man. Under him, India made the 1984 Asian Cup final rounds and players thought at last they found a coach, who understood international football. But too much of vested interest within Indian football community cost Milovan his job. The then AIFF secretary Ashok Ghosh did everything to keep him on the hot seat. In the end, it proved a losing battle – the pressure to remove Milovan and restore an Indian coach was too much.
The AIFF always found novel ways to get rid of a coach. At least one national coach was removed through the team manager, who wrote a letter to the AIFF president saying the coach was not working in the best of team’s interest during two tours. The letter was placed before the technical committee and the coach lost his job. Federation sources said the manager’s letter was actually dictated by a couple of senior AIFF officials.
SA Rahim was a legendary coach, who guided India in three Olympics and two Asian Games. In Asian Games, he enjoyed a hundred per cent record, winning the gold medal on both occasions. In 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Rahim’s boys made the country feel proud by finishing fourth. In 1960 Rome, the western media praised India’s spirited as well as highly skillful display against France and Hungary.
Yet, Rahim had to overcome stiff resistance every time the coach was to be picked up for a big meet. Before 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the federation had to restore to internal voting to decide the coach. Rahim survived by the skin of his teeth, beating the other aspirant, Balaidas Chatterjee 7-6.
Old timers say Chatterjee’s loss was actually the result of IFA’s (governing body of Bengal football) internal squabbles. A couple of IFA officials didn’t show up for the voting – it automatically swung the issue in favour of Rahim.
Chatterjee’s backers, which included IOA boss Pankaj Gupta, didn’t take this “insult” lying down – during Olympics, they did everything to undermine Rahim’s importance. Chatterjee was sent to Helsinki as the manager of the boxing team, but he reportedly spent more time with the football squad.
One of Rahim’s most celebrated disciples is Syed Nayeemuddin, a legendary defender and captain of India’s 1970 medal winning Asian Games team. He later turned a successful coach and the only footballer till date to be conferred with both Arjuna and Dronacharya awards. But his exit as the national coach too was something he would like to forget sooner than possible.
Chief coach Nayeemuddin’s relationship with team captain Bhaichung Bhutia hit the rock bottom during 2006 World Cup qualifiers. Both went public to criticize each other. In the match against Yemen in Delhi, India looked a totally disjointed lot and lost by three goals.
The same night, the coach was told his tenure was over. Given the performance of the team, Nayeemuddin’s sacking didn’t come as a surprise. But it did give rise to the unfortunate speculation that the coach was the ultimate loser in his tussle with the skipper. It wasn’t a happy ending for the highly decorated coach.
Thereafter, local coaches at the helm of the national team have become a rarity. Armando Colaco remains the only Indian coach in recent times to be given the national team, that too for a short period of three months only.
Nowadays, foreign coaches, commanding fat salaries, take charges of the national teams at all levels. The pattern is more or less similar – they are brought with high expectations, given the best of facilities. The shine invariably fades away after few seasons when they fail to deliver in an atmosphere where the domestic structure is getting almost nonexistent. The moment they express their displeasure, the plot thickens. Bosses hurdle together to find the best possible exit route for the unsuspecting technical man.
An unending cycle of Indian football.