The Cup Of Confusion
Even before kick-off, the event billed as the biggest in Indian and Asian soccer produces nothing but embarrassment
By M.G. Radhakrishnan in Kochi
The All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, in his 13th year as president, had billed it Asia's biggest football event, featuring 16 international teams. But now it seems destined to be remembered as Asia's Cup of Confusion. Even before kick-off, the $150,000 (Rs 69,00,000) Sahara Cup Millennium Football tournament was turning into a comedy of errors.
|EMPTY SMILES: The opening ceremony in Kollkata was held in a deserted stadium|
Team withdrawals, constant rescheduling, unknowns arriving in place of stars, club teams masquerading as national squads, lost luggage ... all well before the opening day. First Iraq pulled out at the last minute and forced the Kerala leg of the three-venue event to be put back by a day. Then so did Olympic champs Cameroon after holding out for more money, though they had accepted payment from the main promoters of the tournament, the Mumbai-based event management company Studio 2100. Match commissioner and AIFF Executive President P.P. Lakshmanan threatened to complain to FIFA about Cameroon's last minute bargaining. What about Iraq? "You know about these totalitarian countries. Our information is that the entire country is in a state of suspended animation owing to its President Saddam Hussein's serious illness. No decisions are being taken at the moment there," said Lakshmanan who is Das Munshi's closest comrade in the AIFF.
Indonesia didn't try to bargain but were barred because at least seven of their 18-member squad were foreign nationals from Australia, Thailand and Cameroon! Indonesian team manager Johny Pardede admitted at Kochi that his team was not the national squad but drawn from the Harimao Tapanuli club, the country's national league champions. Hong Kong's national squad was to arrive a day before the opening but Air-India could not confirm their tickets and had to delay their departure by two days.
Who Said These Guys Would Turn Up?
What raised eyebrows further was the quality of the teams which did show up. Das Munshi had claimed that except for Japan which was to send a combined universities team, all the other teams would feature full strength national squads. He promised Chilean World Cup stars Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, who were missing, as was the entire Chilean team's luggage between Santiago and Kolkata.
|DOUBLE STANDARDS: The Bangladesh squad (above) is housed in a three-star hotel while the Yugoslavia team (left) gets a five-star welcome in Kochi|
Yugoslavia was supposed to turn up with four players from their Euro 2000 tournament squad but when the team landed at Kochi, none of the Euro Four were there. "Who told you that these guys would come? Isn't it common knowledge that none of those who play for the European clubs would be allowed by their respective clubs to travel or play at this time of the year?" asks Yugoslavia's head coach Ilija Petkovic. "But don't underestimate those who have come. It is our team for the future," he says.
This was a common refrain of most of the teams which gathered for the event. Iceland's chief coach Atli Edvaldsson also claimed that four from his squad had played the World Cup qualifying matches while the rest were "players of tomorrow". Like Petkovic, he too put the onus for the lack of star power in his side on the refusal by European clubs to release players. Babu Mathar, general secretary of the newly formed Indian Premier Football Association (IPFA), says, "The Millennium Cup is acquiring all dimensions of a farce. The entire country has been taken for a ride by the AIFF." The only silver lining in the Kochi leg of the tournament is the encounter between Yugoslavia and Bosnia, who will play each other for the first time since their bloody civil war.
The AIFF now parries questions about this disastrous beginning by putting the blame on Studio 2100. "The MoU with these teams were signed by Studio 2100. If some of the teams have reneged on the agreement to honour the commitment to participate or bring the national squads, it is their duty to take action," says Lakshmanan. But no senior Studio 2100 official was available in Kochi to monitor arrangements until the last day.
The association of the firm with such a large football event is mysterious. Studio 2100 is a newcomer to sports management of this size: its owner K.S. Juneja had started out as a Kolkata-based distributor of films who then turned producer with his brother in the 1970s. Switching identities seems to be a habit with the firm: when the Junejas visited Kolkata in August 2000, they called themselves Studio 2001. The firm had earlier organised WWF wrestling, Bollywood nights and some squash events.
As the Cup spluttered to a start, stories of mismanagement also began mounting. Says Kerala State Football Association President C.M.I. Methar: "Rs 45,000 was spent just for bringing 20,000 tickets printed in Delhi to Kochi. With less than that amount we would have printed the entire tickets here!" Adds a KFA official: "We are completely in the dark about the tournament. All that we pray for is the crowds should come to watch the game. Otherwise we will not get another tournament here."
There have also been complaints about the way the Indian team has been treated by the promoters. There was a clear double standard at work: the European teams were housed in the five-star luxury of the Taj Residency while India and Bangladesh were accommodated in a three-star hotel. The Indian team waited in Goa for four days, arriving in Kochi only on the eve of its first match. The reason? The team's travel agent confirmed the squad's tickets only the day before its first scheduled game on what was the biggest day of the players' lives.
The Indians arrived in three batches, with the last landing late in the evening. Irritated with the delay, Indian star I.M. Vijayan drove straight from the Kochi international airport to his native Thrissur, 75 km away. "How I wish we could have got some more time to practice. But we have barely a couple of hours for practise before our first match," said Krishnaji Rao, the team's technical director. The Sahara Millennium Super Cup will definitely be an event to remember. But for all the wrong reasons.
-with Natasha Israni