All it takes is a measuring tape to explain why India is a dwarf among giants dominating international soccer, critics of the national team said.
The world’s second-most populous nation has a rich history of the game, but the team are an embarrassing 142nd in the FIFA rankings and Indians wonder every four years why they do not figure in the World Cup.
The national team did qualify for this month’s Asian Cup — after a 27-year gap that underlines their struggles even in the smaller continental pool — but were soundly beaten 4-0 by Australia in their opening group match on Monday.
The popular notion is that opponents are literally head and shoulders above India because lack of height is a serious handicap for Indian soccer.
“To a large extent, height has been an issue in Indian soccer,” veteran journalist and author Jaydeep Basu said.
“Look at the forward line. You have a 1.73m Bhaichung Bhutia, partnering Sunil Chhetri, who is 1.70m. Going for the aerial ball, they stand no chance against taller defenders,” Basu said.
“In the defense, Deepak Mondal is not technically unsound, but suppose India play England tomorrow and he has to mark Peter Crouch [2.01m],” said Basu, who has been following the game in the country for more than 25 years and has written an anecdotal history of Indian soccer.
“This is precisely why [national coach] Bob Houghton is scouting for taller players. I think the same logic explains the presence of Abhishek Yadav, a towering forward of limited ability, in the national team,” he added.
Houghton was given a list of 35 players when he took over in 2006, but one of the first things the journeyman coach did was to ask the All India Football Federation to invite taller players for trial. From them, he picked Micky Fernandes and Freddie Mascarenhas for a four-team tournament in Vancouver.
“Even the 1962 Asian Games champion India squad, arguably our best ever, had at least seven first-team players — including Peter Thangaraj, Arun Ghosh, Chuni Goswami and Jarnail Singh — who were near or over the [1.82m] mark,” Basu said.
Manab Bhattacharya, a sports science officer who worked with the national team, submitted a proposal to the Indian soccer federation to start a center to groom taller players, but the federation did not show interest.
“We missed a trick there,” Bhattacharya said. “A similar center in Bangalore has done wonders for our volleyball team which now at least qualifies for the world championship, something we could not imagine earlier.”
“I proposed a similar height-hunt project for Indian [soccer]. It would not have disturbed the existing set-up, but could have been a source of a steady supply of talented, taller players,” said Bhattacharya, who works with the Sports Authority of India.
However, the head of Arsenal’s soccer school Paul Shipwright is not convinced by these arguments, even though he is baffled by India’s lack of progress in soccer.
“It does surprise me that a country of 1 billion is outside the top 100 [in the FIFA rankings],” said Shipwright, who recently visited New Delhi.
“It’s not that India is not a sporting nation. See the Commonwealth Games: They beat everyone in cricket and ruled the world in field hockey. I think they just have not concentrated on soccer,” Shipwright added.
“A lot of people do say this [lack of height being a disadvantage], but I’m not convinced. Look at the Arsenal team, they are not all towering players. See [Andre] Arshavin, he is not a giant. Players like [Lionel] Messi are short, but strong,” he said.
Russian Arshavin stands 1.72m, while Argentine Messi is 1.69m. Andres Iniesta, who scored Spain’s winning goal in last year’s World Cup final, is 1.70m, taller by about 3cm than Argentina’s former World Cup hero Diego Maradona.
“I don’t like it when people say India is lagging because the players here are short,” Shipwright said. “This is more of an excuse. I have seen some of the Indian boys who are really big and height does not matter as long as you have got a good technique.”
Basu concedes there may be other reasons for India’s lack of success.
“People talk about great players who are short, about the advantage of having a low point of gravity and how Spain’s World Cup triumph in South Africa proves lack of height is no real handicap,” Basu said.
“I think India’s problem is different. Our players are neither strong nor skilled enough to completely negate the height factor,” he added. “The fact remains, we need footballers who are both skilled and tall and you just cannot compromise in either of these two aspects.”
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