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India on a mission

last updated Saturday 22nd July 2000, 10:29 AM

They're ranked 115 in the world and they're on a mission.

For a country that has failed to register a blip never mind make a mark in international football, India's contribution to the world game is more significant than many might think. During the 1952 Olympics India, playing as was their wont in bare feet, were thrashed 10-1 by Yugoslavia and their team suffered from frostbite and bruising because of the Helsinki weather and terrain.

For the watching Fifa officials it became apparent that bare feet are no match for boots and, soon after, world football's governing body introduced a rule making footwear compulsory in competitive matches.

At Craven Cottage this afternoon the weather should be milder than Helsinki's was in 1952 and, after lacing their boots, India's national team will take to the field against Fulham.

It is India's first serious tour of England since football was introduced there at the turn of the 20th century by British soldiers. They then play West Bromwich on Wednesday followed by a crunch encounter with Bangladesh next Saturday at Leicester City's Filbert Street.

The tour promises to be an intriguing one and is designed to raise the profile of India's football. It also aims to highlight the lack of British Asians within the game here and address concerns that, despite an obvious passion, they are still failing to make a breakthrough.

There is not a single player of Asian extraction in an English Premiership first team, although some are playing in the reserves while others have been signed by academies. India's captain Baichung Bhutia plays for Bury but overall the country's football, both in Britain and in large areas of India itself, remains an unknown quantity.

Bhutia feels that the tour will be a learning experience for the team. "I think the players will find the pace of the game a bit difficult to deal with. Don't expect too much of us but we have some quality and could surprise a few people," he says.

India are ranked 115th in the world and, despite the popularity of the game in some parts of the country, the standard remains poor. Many concede that the team would just about hold their own in the lower reaches of the Nationwide League.

A national league was only formed in 1997 and floodlights introduced last season. Prior to that, many matches had to be postponed because of the heat, or spread over several hours to allow players to cool off. There is only one full-time professional club, FC Kochin, in the southwestern state of Kerala, and there has been concern at how the game is run, with the authorities plagued by infighting.

This tour was preceded by a conference highlighting issues that have been raised by their presence. Paul Dimeo, who has conducted research into the Indian game, says: "Many people were genuinely surprised at the interest there is in India. Some clubs have massive crowds and more people watch club football in India than they do club cricket.

"We also discussed developing links, how we in Britain can help football in India. There were some practical ideas about translating coaching manuals and videos into Indian languages. Football is developing in India and there are some very good players coming through. It is now a global game, it's difficult to maintain stereotypes. Twenty years ago nobody took African football seriously and look where they are now."

Football is popular in three states - Kerala, Goa and west Bengal. What the game lacks in facilities and know-how, however, it makes up for in passion. The most established clubs, Mohammadan Sporting, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, are based in Calcutta and regularly draw crowds in excess of 100,000 when they face each other. Average league attendances for the city's main clubs are around 50,000. FC Kochin often draw crowds of more than 60,000.

Chima Okorie, a striker who who left his native Nigeria to study in India where he was spotted playing for his university and later appeared for all three Calcutta clubs, says: "The atmosphere is absolutely electric during derby matches or for any important game. In my first match for Mohammadan we played East Bengal and there was a crowd of 150,000.

"For the people football is like life and death; their team means everything to them. If a team beats another in a derby then they will have a massive party that carries on for days."

Given the Indian team's limited abilities there are fears that the tour could have a negative impact and reinforce stereotypes. However it has been aggressively promoted within British-Asian communities and large crowds are expected.

The organisers are confident that gains will be made. Jas Baines, who is involved in the promotion of Asian football, says: "There are serious concerns about the lack of British Asians within football. The onus has to be on the community and also on the football authorities, who could be doing a lot more.

"But the fact that the Indian team is here is sending out an important message. It is breaking a stereotype and hopefully we will get people who do not normally watch live football to come to stadiums. It's good for the clubs and their community work and it's good for football."

British Asians with Premier prospects

Harpal Singh Leeds United

The 18-year-old left-winger has been tipped to be the first Asian to play for England at any level. He was recently voted the most promising player by his academy team-mates. Already established in the reserves, he is close to a first-team call-up. Born in Pudsey, he was spotted playing for a local league club and signed during George Graham's reign.

Anwar Uddin West Ham United

Also 18, this traditional English-style centre-half established himself in the reserves at Upton Park last season and has excellent first-team prospects. He recently won praise for his performances in a youth tournament in America. Born in Stepney Green, he was spotted playing for an east London boys' club. He is in the final year of a YTS contract.

Source footballunlimited by Vivek Chaudhary
Since 1998
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