Indian football legend IM Vijayan (in file pic with Maradona) on Thursday said that the game in the country has stagnated in recent years with the national side not showing improvement with a string of reverses at the regional and Asian level.
Former captain Vijayan, who played 79 matches for India between 1989 and 2003, refused to pinpoint the SAFF Championships debacle, but said that the national side has not produced results in recent years. (Read: Shower of bullets mark Afghanistan's first win over India)
"I am not an (sports) administrator and not playing in the national side now. So I am not going to blame anybody for this. But what can I say, it's for all to see. We are not getting the results in the recent years at the regional and Asian level," Vijayan told PTI from his home in Kerala.
"I am not saying this because of the title loss in SAFF Championships. In fact, the team played well, even in the final against Afghanistan. But we have not had the desired results in recent times. When I was playing India were in top 100 in the FIFA rankings (94th in 1996). But now we are low in rankings (147th)," he said.
India took part in the 2011 Asian Cup in Doha after winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 at home and in the same year also bagged the SAFF title for the sixth time. The country, however, failed to go past the qualify round of AFC Challenge Cup in 2010 and 2012 - the first one, under Englishman Bob Houghton, had Under-23 players while the second one was a full strength team under current coach Wim Koevermans, who took charge in July last year for a two-year deal.
The national side also lost heavily in the two international friendly matches played this year - against Palestine and Tajikistan. The only saving grace was the Nehru Cup title triumph here last year under Dutchman Koevermans.
Vijayan, also known as 'Black Panther' for his lethal goal scoring abilities in his playing days, said that it would be difficult for India to jump to top 10 in Asia and qualify for the World Cup in near future.
"It will be a difficult to be among top 10 in Asia. We have to qualify for Asian Cup and beat the top teams there and we have to be able to play in later stages of the World Cup qualifying round. It's tough, though, I am not saying that it's impossible," said the 44-year-old former striker who scored 40 goals in his international career.
Vijayan backed the proposed IPL-style football tournament to be organised early next year by IMG-Reliance, the commercial and marketing partners of All India Football Federation.
"It (the IPL-style league) will be good for Indian players as they will play with and against good international players. It will help the Indian players. We played against some good players in our times (in tournaments like Nehru Cup) and that has helped us," said Vijayan, referring to the Nehru Cup tournament, which once saw participation from the likes of the then Soviet Union, Romania, Iraq, Hungary, Poland and North Korea.
"Moreover, I think the profile of India football can increase with more spectators coming at the stadia and watching on television. The Indian players will also get more money.
"I know there is some problem going on with the players signed with IMG-R and the coach having spoken about lack of competitive football for them as I-League teams have refused to sign them. But I hope the issue is sorted out. But as a concept, the league is a good one," he said, adding that he has not been associated so far with the proposed league in any capacity.
Asked if bringing in foreign coaches has benefitted the Indian national team, he said, "It's not about whether the coach is from abroad or India. The players are from India and we have to have quality. We have a long history of foreign coaches. I have played under some of them."
"We had Jiri Pesek, Rustam Akramov and Stephan Constatine during my playing days. India did well under them. Also, there were Sukhwinder Singh and Syed Nayemuddin and Indian did well under them also. So it's not about foreign or home-grown coach," Vijayan said.
Talking about the Afghanistan vs India final in the SAFF Championships, he said that the former were a very good side with some players plying trade in German lower division leagues in their ranks.
"India played very well but they were up against a very good Afghanistan side which had four players in German lower leagues in their ranks. They (Afghans) have problems at home due to their current political situation and they had to play outside their country. That has helped them. Indian players should also play abroad, in Europe, even in their lower leagues," he said.
Vijayan also spoke highly of striker and current captain Sunil Chhetri, who went past him to become the second highest Indian goal scorers during the SAFF Championships. Chhetri scored against Bangladesh in a group match for his 41st goal in national colours.
"He (Chhetri) is a very good striker and he is also the leader now. I have seen him play many times though I have not played with or against him. He formed a very good strike partner with Bhaichung Bhutia. I congratulate him on surpassing me to become second highest goal scorer.
"He has some years left in his career, so he will surely go past Bhaichung (43 goals from 107 matches) and become the highest goal scorer. It's good, after me Bhaichung carried the responsibility of scoring goals and now Chhetri is doing the same. After him somebody will do," he said.
He also said that he will continue for a few years playing for Kerala Police, his employers, in domestic circuit. He recently played for Kerala Police in the Durand Cup qualifying round here, making a comeback after seven years. Kerala Police though failed to qualify for the ongoing quarterfinal league stage of the Durand here.
"I am still doing practice and keeping myself fit. I cannot play full 90 minutes but can play 20-25 minutes. I will continue playing for a few years," said Vijayan, who left the domestic circuit in 2005/06 season as an East Bengal player before coming back in the ongoing Durand Cup.