Friday, August 8, 2008

AFC Challenge Cup Slusheth Over

Sunil Chhetri in his post match comments to the media revealed that the coach had told the team that they were not playing football and hence should focus more on winning the game. The opinion was shared by the Myanmar coach and will be confirmed by anyone who saw the fare on display.

But the fact remains that in official AIFF, AFC and FIFA records this will go down as an international football match, which is a shame really because the pitch that the game was played on would have been better used for mud wrestling or a pig farm or something similar.

For everything else which seems wrong with this tournament (and which I will mention later), the playing field has been the most un-level of all. Even before the tournament kicked-off we had the Indian team cancelling practice sessions because the practice pitches provided were so disgraceful. Then the fixtures between Gachibowli Stadium and Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium had to be interchanged as the LBS turf was much worse than the Gachibowli pitch and there was no way a majority of the matches could be played there. Hence, we have Gachibowli play host to 13 of the 16 matches, a move which has made the tournament inaccessible to local fans because the stadium is not really an easy commute for Hyderabadis.

True there has been incessant rain and with poor draining facilities and maybe an unfriendly soil, keeping the ground in shape must be a challenging if not an impossible task. That said, the blame for the fiasco should lie not with mother nature but with AIFF and AFC.

The AIFF knows the grounds it has, the impact of monsoon on the grounds and the wear and tear the surface faces when a football match is played. How then could they plan a 16 match tournament with 13 of these to be played on the same ground over 11 days? And how could the AFC approve a tournament with such a plan, if indeed this was the plan submitted by the AIFF?

With a packed schedule of fixtures, at least two top class venues (f not more)were needed with the group matches and semi-finals equally split between the two venues. Of course that would mean increased costs for the organizers, but then organizing an international tournament is never supposed to be a piece of cake.

The funny part is that India hosted this tournament only after the originally designated hosts Chinese Taipei could not guarantee that they would be able to meet AFC's standards for hosting the tournament. So are we to understand that the standards that the AIFF have met comply with the minimum required? Is it that the lowest of the low footballing nations (which is what these teams are really) deserve nothing better? Is the team that lifts this mud-tainted trophy really deserving of a prized place in the AFC Asian Cup 2011?

Which brings me to the other question that has irked me since this tournament kicked off? If the prize is so big then what explains the manner in which participating countries approach this tournament?

It’s difficult to understand why so many teams have not called up or not been able to call up their best players for a tournament which could be an easy route to a chance to rub shoulders with the big boys in Asia. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and DPR Korea were some of the teams that could not or did not call up their players playing in European lower leagues. Is the chance to qualify for Asia’s prominent event not big enough for the AFC to be able to pull strings to compel Afghan players in Germany to be released for their national teams? Is the chance to qualify not significant enough for the giants of the tourney (DPR Korea) to send their first string team? Maybe there is some information that I don’t have that may explain this approach, but till that comes in, I am completely mystified.

This tournament has not been a showcase for emerging and developing countries of Asian football that AFC would want us to believe. It hasn’t been a platform where the AIFF has established itself as the big brother amongst the tiny tots of Asian football. Had it not been for the footballers who have turned up not to play football but to compete with the conditions and the few hundred fans per game, this tournament would not have been worth commenting upon. This to put it mildly, has been an embarrassment.

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