Where does Indian football go from here? As expected India were comfortable winners of the SAFF Championships. Sunil Chhetri excelled scoring in every match, finishing with a record seven goals in five matches. The Savio Madeira coached team played patient possession football to tire opponents. So India ended 2011 with a different style of play from the Bob Houghton era (Asian Cup in January), when the long ball and quick breaks from defence were frequently used.
India played in the SAFF event, with just a week’s practice. In contrast, Nepal and Maldives had trained for two months and made exposure trips abroad. This reveals that at the South Asian level, Indian football is a notch above their rivals. Considering this overall domination, many suggested that in future SAFF Championships, India should only field their U-23 team, with some senior players. However such a move would be welcome only if it is ensured that the senior national team will play 12 to 15 internationals annually. Otherwise the SAFF tournament is valuable exposure for the senior squad.
This tournament also exposed some weak links in the team. Right back Samir Naik has slowed down and was dropped after one match. His replacement Nirmal Chettri improved with each outing. Midfielders Climax Lawrence, Steven Dias and central defender Mahesh Gawli were inconsistent and at times tentative. Arnab Mondal, Lalkamal Bhowmick (Prayag United) and Gurwinder Singh (East Bengal) are replacements worth considering. Amongst the established players, others to excel were left back Syed Rahim Nabi, left midfielder Clifford Miranda and goalkeeper Karanjit Singh with his timely saves and remarkable presence of mind in crises situations.
Nabi’s speed, commitment and frequent overlapping were impressive. Chhetri has now scored 36 goals in 62 matches for India and should overtake Baichung Bhutia’s record tally of 43 goals. The diminutive striker, who is still keen to play club football abroad, could become the first Indian to score 50 international goals. Both Nabi and Chhetri have been shortlisted for the title of Indian Player of the Year, to be announced by the All India Football Federation next week.
Among the younger players Jeje Lalpekhlua’s shielding of the ball, sharp turns and work-rate were also very impressive and he has developed a telepathic understanding with Chettri. In his first year with the senior national team he has scored eight goals in 15 matches, an impressive strike-rate. He is the most improved player in the national team and could be the next superstar of Indian football.
Other players promoted from the U-23 team to the senior team, midfielders Jewel Raja Sheikh and Lalrindika Ralte played with maturity whenever they came on as substitutes. So the AIFF can be happy that the Youth Development Plan launched a couple of years ago is working, as Jeje, Ralte and Jewel Raja are all products of this system.