Pakistan and India on tour
Beating Pakistan in England next month would put a smile on the face of Indian football after a sad week. The nation's best ever player Baichung Bhutia retired from the international game due to persistent injuries. It truly was the end of a 16-year era for the legendary forward as tributes, as well as the occasional barb, poured in from all corners of the sub-continent and beyond for the player known simply as 'Bhai', the Hindi word for 'brother'. It was a fitting nickname for Indian football's big brother. That is why, less than 24 hours later, Ian Rush upset a few fans in the country when talking to reporters in New Delhi where Liverpool are opening the Steve McMahon football academy.
"There is no one the footballers in India would look up to unlike China or Korea and probably that is also a reason why India has remained behind," said the Welshman who probably should have stopped after saying that he didn't follow Indian football.
The search for Bhutia's successor continues and in the UK, at the start of September, fans of India and Pakistan will get a chance to see some of the next generation as the two teams meet at Derby's Pride Park on September 3 and then in Glasgow six days later. The games are officially billed, as 'The Clash of the Titans India Pakistan UK tour'; marketing hype in football must be contagious in England. Rio Ferdinand seems to be caught up in it all and is quoted on the tour's official site, albeit in a strangely worded-fashion, as saying."I am welcoming the India and Pakistan teams to the home of football, this is a major breakthrough for both nations and I hope to see myself in India and Pakistan soon."
Pakistan have their own Rio Ferdinand in the shape of Zesh Rehman and, like the Manchester United man, the former Fulham defender is injured. He would love to be there, however. "The rivalry between India and Pakistan is always fierce," Rehman told ESPNsoccernet."To the country it means beating India more than anyone else and I'm sure it's the same for all countries who have a long-standing grudge towards one another." Victory would be a welcome morale boost as both countries consider their short and medium-term football futures after crashing out of qualification for the 2014 World Cup at the first time of asking. Pakistan, ranked 170 by FIFA, lost to Bangladesh while the Bhangra Boys, only 12 spots higher, were eliminated by the UAE. The two rivals dealt with the setback in different ways.
Pakistan blamed each other while India blamed the referee. India had more of a point. Two players were harshly sent off early in the first leg and keeping the score down to 3-0 was a triumph of sorts. The return match in Delhi ended 2-2. Fans will never know how India would have done had the referee been a little better. Now it is all about the future and the UK games are a small part of that; India are looking to build and are sending an Under-23 team for the Pakistan match-ups as well as a meeting against English youngsters.
India's outlook is brighter. The professional I-League, a competition that has a number of issues - lack of professional facilities, a lack of nationwide participation and inconsistent administration from the federation to name just a few - but provides a strengthening framework for the game. There is a vision of sorts and as more money comes into the local game, the long-term outlook is reasonably good.
But it will be some time before Bhutia's long-term vision is realised."I also dreamt of playing in the World Cup," he said upon his retirement."But we all know how difficult it is. It is my biggest regret. I hope I will live to see India play in the World Cup. I would take my children to watch India play wherever or whenever that happens."
The future looks less bright for their neighbour to the west. If Rush had made his comments across the border (unlikely as big European clubs are not exactly falling over themselves to get involved in Pakistan football), heads would have been nodded, not shaken.
The reaction to the Bangladesh loss wasn't pretty. Former captain Mohammed Essa was the best Pakistan player of the last decade and one of the best South Asians for many a year. He is no Bhutia when it comes to his standing in the game and quit the Greenshirts in 2009 after a row with the coach at the time. He may have hung up his boots but he was shooting straight from the hip in the direction of the overseas stars."Tell me where we have performed with these players," he asked after the 3-0 first leg loss in Dhaka."The main problem with them is that being professional players and most loyal to their clubs they normally don't play with the type of courage and commitment our own boys play with ... They try to protect themselves from injuries."
Rehman has the type of football background that even Bhutia could only dream of, at club level at least. The Birmingham-born defender has appeared in all of England's top four divisions in comparison to Bhutia, who enjoyed a short stint in the English lower leagues with Bury. He is also the highest-profile of Pakistan's growing overseas-based contingent and not a fan of Essa."Players like Mohammed Essa have never played at any level so should keep their opinions on professional football to themselves. Essa should not interfere as his comments are not based on adequate football knowledge and will not improve the future state of the game. That's what it's all about, improvement and moving forward to a brighter future of football."
Fans mostly blame the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), for a league that is far from professional or popular and for a national team that can't even arrange a friendly against Asian counterparts in preparation for the World Cup.
Rehman, and he is far from alone in this, wants outside help."The PFF need to appoint a foreign coach and give him time to implement good habits, a professional, disciplined approach and to let his ideas sink in. That's the only way the state of South Asian football will improve, there is no quick fix. They need to invest the money correctly in the youth structure, send the coaches overseas to learn the game and open the doors for foreign players to increase the level of the local players. Twenty years ago Japan took a bottom to top approach; they are now reaping the benefits as a nation by being regulars at the World Cup."
The World Cup may not be on the horizon but the United Kingdom is. Giving a good show in England and Scotland and defeating India would not change that much for Pakistan but would just make fans feel a little bit better. And, of course, it would bring a smile to the face of Indians fans if their team was to triumph. The pair may lag behind in some respects as far as the world game is concerned but at least they have a true football rivalry.