Height is not everything, Mr Houghton (Commentary)

June 17th, 2008 - 12:58 pm ICT by IANS  

By K. Datta
It appeared as if nothing else mattered when the six-week IPL cricket show was on your television screens. Hardly was that exciting period over when the Euro 2008 grabbed eyeballs. Again, it appears nothing else matters for viewers of sports channels. But not quite so, you can take my word for it. For all this competition for eyeballs, for all the hectares of newspaper space devoted to special pages, there are any number of sports fans, among them yours truly, yearning for news about events at a lesser level. This category of sports fans, if not as large a “market,” are just as passionate and, it would safe to say, more discerning. Without ignoring all the action in Euro Cup stadiums in Switzerland and Austria, they are as keen to follow the exploits of their very own teams nearer home.

Cristiano Ronaldo, with his trendily jelled tufts of spiked hair, may be the one of the best footballers on earth, but with all due respect to his standing, he is to the Indian football masses just another Portuguese name. Sochungmi Raleng, an Assam Rifles soldier playing for the Services in Srinagar’s Bakshi Stadium, on the other hand, strikes a more familiar chord. He is one of your own, even if he may not be as widely known as Ronaldo.

Raleng’s 13 goals, including two hat-tricks, in the Services’ 18 in the Santosh Trophy may not have been produced in a competition of a class as lofty as the Euro 2008. So what? For the Services they were no less valuable.

Thanks to Raleng’s goals, the Services reached the national football championship final after 39 long years. With better luck they may even have beaten Punjab to the prized trophy in the final Sunday. For all the importance given to the new professional league, it is the good old Santosh Trophy that the Indian soccer lovers view as the true symbol of the national championship.

Once a powerful force, Services, with this latest entry into a national championship final, can look forward to a return to the days when men like Chandan Singh, Puran Bahadur Thapa and the towering Thangaraj, to name just a few, made them a dominating force.

Raleng is a 23-year-old Manipuri who joined the Assam Rifles in 2002. An elusive customer cutting through defences with remarkable cool and skill, the fresh-faced Manipuri has a keen eye for openings. But, above all, he is a team man who gives passes and receives them intelligently.

No less important is the role of Raghvendra Singh, a hitherto unheard of coach, who is seen on his feet all 90 minutes of his team’s match, nothing unusual about coaches. According to him, teamwork is the secret of his team’s good showing. While singling out Raleng, he also praises his team’s remaining “bachchas”.

The 44-year-old coach, a Risaldar in the Indian Army’s Armoured Corps, attributes his team’s confidence to the fortnight-long stay in Kolkata where they played friendlies with teams from famous clubs of the metropolis, winning all five matches. Raleng is not the only one. Talking of specially talented players, the Risaldar Sahib also makes a mention of midfiender Gordon and Norgen Lama, a tough footballer from Darjeeling.

After hearing about the exploits of young Raleng, national coach Bob Houghton could be tempted to take a closer look at the Assam Rifles goal-poacher. Houghton has gone on record he would prefer taller men, but let him not forget two of his best strikers are on the shorter side, namely Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri. Raleng, at 5ft 8in is a little taller. But even Houghton will agree there can be no hard and fast rule. Height, however useful an asset may be, is not all. Diego Maradona stood only 5ft. 4in his socks.

However, attractive the Euro 2008 may be as a spectacle, the fan at home did not forget to follow the progress of Houghton’s India team in SAFF Cup. That they lost to the team from the far-flung Maldives at Colombo has come as a big disappointment. Naturally, Houghton will have to do some explaining for the defeat. Indian football keeps fighting for a place in the global sun no matter how low its standing may be in the FIFA ratings. His team was handicapped by injuries. But what about the bench strength?

Meanwhile, for all its misfortunes, Indian football has its own mass of followers who are second to none in their passion for the game.

(K.Datta is a veteran journalist and commentator. He can be reached at datta_rahul@rediffmail.com)

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