A whole new ball game

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Published in the Times of India (1 November, 2014)

One of the surprises of this summer’s World Cup was the rampaging play of Algeria. I happened to be in Paris during their early successes in the tournament, living in a neighbourhood where Algerian immigrants made a noisy show of their victories. Cafes and bars emptied onto the streets. Grandmothers in headscarves ululated while young women and men danced on the hoods of cars. Motorcycles whizzed down the boulevards, streaming Algerian flags in the yellow Parisian night.

Their joy was not simply love for their far away country. In a very real sense, they were celebrating the achievements of their own. Sixteen members of the Algerian World Cup squad were born not in Algeria, but in France, as the children of immigrants. Such was the predominance of French-born players in the team that some journalists snidely referred to Algeria as “France B.”

Algeria is not alone in this practice. Look through the ranks of many national teams and you’ll find players born and bred in diaspora. Caribbean countries have long stuffed their rosters with players from the United Kingdom. Turkey brims with German-born Turks. Italy, a traditional power of international football, routinely poaches Argentinians of Italian origin. Afghanistan recently recruited a player from New York City.

Already boasting the half-Indian, Japanese-born striker Arata Izumi, India may soon have another diasporic borrowing in Michael Chopra. The forward hopes to represent the country of his grandparents, who moved to the UK from Jalandhar in the 1950s. After a peripatetic career in the top two divisions of English football, Chopra has arrived at the new frontier of the Indian Super League with Kerala Blasters. Gaining Indian citizenship and then a summons to the national team remain distinct possibilities.

The trend of national teams absorbing players who often have little real connection to the country itself (by his own admission , Chopra had never been to India before) alarms purists, who fear its dilution of genuine patriotic feeling. At the same time, the practice acknowledges a very modern truth. Nations don’t end at their physical borders, but stretch along lines of migration and displacement. After every Algerian victory, little raucous corners of Algeria blossomed on the streets of France.

The addition of Chopra could offer a measure of top-level experience and quality missing from the current set-up. No players from India have managed to break into the elite leagues of the world, or even middling leagues like the English second tier. Were he to play for India, Chopra would immediately be the most illustrious member of the squad.

One major obstacle to such recruitment persists. India’s uncompromising citizenship law — Indian citizens cannot hold the passport of another nation-state — may discourage many players in the diaspora from representing the country of their forebears.

It is in the national team’s interest to hope for change in the law. Invariably, players raised abroad with the advantages of better facilities and more regimented training will tend to a higher standard than those bred in the hard-scrabble lots of Kolkata or Goa or Shillong. Indian football lags behind because of its lamentable infrastructure and lack of investment in the youth game. “In countries like Japan, footballers understand the game very well,” Izumi said in 2011, “they are educated about the game right from the grassroots level of training, which I think is the biggest factor lacking in India.” A European country like Iceland has 28 full sized artificial surfaces for its meagre population of 300,000. Five years ago, Indian officials were grateful that FIFA was willing to help plop down six such pitches around the country.

Some sceptics make the nonsensical argument that Indians lack the requisite physical qualities for footballing success. Our ultimate failing, in their eyes, isn’t sporting but genetic. One need only look at the success of Indian-origin players elsewhere to disabuse this silly notion. The Oslo-born midfielder Harmeet Singh recently made his full international debut for Norway. Indian Surinamese immigrants — with wonderful names like Luciano Narsingh and Prince Rajcomar — have been fixtures in Dutch football for decades.

My favourite European player-of-Indian-origin has to be the retired French international Vikash Dhorasoo, an elegant midfielder born to Mauritian parents. He played in the blue of France and won numerous titles in domestic French football. “I am the proof that Indians can play football and that size doesn’t matter,” he once told an Indian newspaper. Deft, lean, irrepressible, Dhorasoo was the first footballer of international stature in whom I could see some glimmer of my Indian self.

It will be awhile until India produces a player of Dhorasoo’s ability. As Indians wait for the domestic game to mature and for the required infrastructure to grudgingly fall into place, the easiest way to improve the national team in the short term may be by repatriating players from abroad. One might read their inclusion as an indictment of domestic Indian football, but another interpretation is possible. If Algeria can so rapturously embrace its sons born in France, if Turkey can cheer on its Berliners, maybe it’s also time for a bigger understanding of what it means to be Indian.

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