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SAFF defeat is a wake-up call: Former footballers

India’s defeat to Afghanistan in the final of the SAFF Cup — a tournament India has won in six out of nine editions — in Kathmandu on Wednesday is a wake-up call for the football fraternity which is split between the I-League and the franchise-based IMG-Reliance League that the All India Football Federation plans to introduce next year. 

Afghanistan players
Afghanistan players celebrate a goal against India in the SAFF Cup final in Kathmandu. Pic/AFP

Moments after India’s 0-2 loss, coach Wim Koevermans expressed his fears for the future of the game in the country given that a host of India players including Subrata Paul, Nirmal Chhetri, Syed Rahim Nabi, Gourmangi Singh and Sandesh Jhingan are without clubs since they are contracted with the IMG-R League, which most I-League clubs are in conflict with.

Former India striker IM Vijayan is convinced the team’s defeat could be a worrying sign for things to come if the IMG-I League impasse continues. “Though the Indian team played quite well in the SAFF Cup, the final defeat is definitely disappointing.

But the crucial phase for Indian football begins now. Unless both factions — AIFF and I-League Clubs — come together and work out a compromise formula to let both the I-League as well as the IMG-R League take place, Indian football will only head further down,” Vijayan told MiD DAY yesterday.

IM Vijayan, Godfrey Pereira and Abhishek Yadav
Superstrikers: Former India forwards IM Vijayan, Godfrey Pereira and Abhishek Yadav 

“I-League is good but it has failed to lift the profile of Indian football. We can’t afford to make excuses after losing to Afghanistan. I’ve heard tales of their players having to train while keeping an eye out for a bullet apart from the ball. I’m not saying Afghanistan is a bad team, but their players have faced a lot of adversity while playing for the nation.

Compare this to the stable political and economic situation here and you wonder why Indian football is still struggling,” said Vijayan, nicknamed the Black Pearl of Indian football in his heyday. Former India captain Godfrey Pereira, seconded Vijayan’s views.

“India desperately lacks strikers to replace the calibre of Baichung Bhutia and now Sunil Chhetri. And the reason for this is the I-League. Show me one I-League club that has an Indian playing in the out-and-out striker’s role.

Almost every team has a Nigerian or some other foreign striker. In the SAFF final, Chetri was introduced late in the match, but why are we over-reliant on him. It’s time for change,” he said.

Abhishek Yadav, another former India striker, reckoned this is a crucial phase for Indian football. “As coach Koevermans has rightly pointed, national players not having clubs to play for is a worrying sign.

But that worry hasn’t affected the players yet because the season is yet to start.  However, the time to settle this tug-of-war starts now. It’s high time people swallow their egos and work towards the betterment of football,” said Yadav.  

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