OPINION – The India and Albiceleste Drama, Much Ado About Nothing?

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The Argentinian National Football Team is the best football team (officially ranked no.1 by FIFA) on the planet right now. They recently emerged victorious in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, defeating the reigning champions France in arguably the greatest final ever witnessed in the competition’s 92 years history. They also happen to be led by arguably the greatest football player to have ever walked the earth in Lionel Messi.

India, on the other hand, are well past their golden age of the 1950s and 1960s when they were one of the best teams in Asia. They now struggle to find any relevance in the global sport, having never played the World Cup and ranked 101 (in April) out of 211 official footballing nations. The Indian footballing faithfuls were sent into raptures after recently winning the Intercontinental Cup, a tournament that has little to no significance in the broad sense, restricted to the peripheries of the footballing game.

And yet, the hottest debate in Indian Football at the moment involves these two teams. On June 20th, the Times Of India reported that the AIFF, the country’s governing body of football rejected a rare chance to host Messi’s side in a friendly during the international window. Shaji Prabhakaran, the Federation’s Secretary General cited financial difficulties given the short notice in turning down the offer. Given the unthinkable polarity between the two countries, AIFF would have to arrange for another team to play the world champions – similar to what happened in 2011 when Messi’s side played Venezuela in Kolkata.

This decision has been met by an uproar among casual football fans from India who cannot begin to imagine why they have been deprived of such a golden opportunity to watch one of the ‘Goats’ in action, live. “It would have brought huge fame and rise to Indian football” and “It’s a great blunder from AIFF.” read just a few of the many comments under posts reporting the news. The federation were branded as ‘losers’ for having failed to bring in the best team in the world as it would’ve brought ‘unprecedented coverage’ to the Indian Football team.

This is as far from the truth as are India in footballing quality from Argentina, the Albiceleste. Playing one game against the best team in the world would not make us any better. Yes, some of the international media would’ve covered the game, our players could tick one off their bucket list, and there would be some earnings for the federation as well by selling all the tickets, but that is about it. And if it was going to be another team to play against the world champions, it’d be a double jeopardy, a loss-loss situation anyway. It does not do anything for the development of the sport in our nation.

Argentina themselves are suffering from crippling inflation, with the local currency, the peso having lost most of its value. The national team earned a whopping $42 million for winning the World Cup and are charging around $4-5 million (40 crores INR) for every friendly they play on foreign soil. It is unclear whether the federation chooses to help their citizens with the earnings but given the nation’s population, it wouldn’t help the economy in the grand scale of things.

A lot of people who do support AIFF’s decision have pointed out how this amount of money could help Indian Football in many other ways, such as setting up grassroots programmes, opening academies, developing women’s football, helping out state federations and so much more. However, the problem is that unless it were something as attractive as bringing Messi to India, investors from the corporate world would not be willing to splash the cash.

Kerala Sports Minister V Abdurahiman tried to make the most of this already-confusing situation by making some visionary remarks on the episode. Lampooning the AIFF on Facebook, the minister remarked, “Our football officials need to start thinking more creatively. Otherwise, there might not be even a slight change to the 101st place in the FIFA ranking.” He goes on to say how the match could change the footballing landscape in the country because This is the time when football has become more professional. If you can’t stand it, the result will be backward. Playing with big teams will raise the quality of Indian players. Those far away in Latin America could see this worship and enthusiasm.” Yeah not so sure about that, sir.

The minister has expressed his wishes to host the World Champions in his state itself at some point. Not sure that is where Kerala’s footballing focus should be given some of the appalling news that have surfaced recently.

Gokulam Kerala, the most successful football club from the state in recent years, were ousted from their home stadium – the EMS Corporation Stadium by the Kozhikode Corporation. The Club President, VC Praveen stated, “We (Gokulam) spend nearly ₹8 crores/per year on the team. If Kerala doesn’t need the team, we’ll consider leaving the state.” He also expressed discontent over how the newly crowned IWL champions, Gokulam’s women’s team were not given any congratulatory note by the government.

On 22nd May, a number of aspiring young footballers between the ages of 5 to 17 who reached Kochi to participate in trials for Kerala Blasters FC were not allowed to enter the ground as the District Sports Council decided to keep the gates locked alleging non-payment of rent due from the club. The children had to wait for hours before the ground was finally opened. The Women’s team of KBFC was recently shut down by the club officials, further painting a poor picture of the sport in the state.

However, chances are that the claims made by the minister are nothing but shoddy attempts at riding a laughable wave of populism.

The Secretary General of the AIFF Shaji Prabhakaran clarified his previous statements in the wake of the unfair backlash that the AIFF have received. “There was no official proposal from Argentina to play against India. They wanted to play against a neutral team in India since they did not want to play against India, we could not do anything about it.”, said Prabhakaran, further exemplifying how improbable the match-up was, from the very beginning.

The entire scenario has been much ado about nothing, really. If anything, it has provided a reality check to the many fans of football across India, who are reeling from their burst bubble of Messi playing in and against India. The debacle, the claims, and the clarifications were all unnecessary and uncalled for.

While it is true that Indian Football has a long way to go, flashy and hurried decisions will not bring us closer where we want to be. This episode has laid bare the deep-lying ignorance that pervades a large number of football enthusiasts in the country. The federation has set the necessary short-term and long-term goals with the Vision 2047 roadmap, it’s time for us fans to voice our support and ensure that the promises are kept.


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Soham Halder
Soham Halder
I'm Soham Halder, a Kolkata-based football correspondent and sports lover. Passionate about Indian Football and providing high-quality coverage of the same in its myriad facets.

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