Century-old East Bengal were reduced to an organisational mess at the start of the 2021-22 season because of internal issues. It dragged on for so long that the club management was finding it difficult to raise a squad even when the deadline for recruitment was staring at its face. Finally, all that the famed outfit could manage was to assemble a ragtag side that could hardly earn the confidence of the fans.
But if there was one area the millions of SC East Bengal supporters felt assured about, it was the last line of defence. While the first-choice custodian Arindam Bhattacharya joined East Bengal with the previous season’s Golden Glove award in his bag (it reportedly fetched him a contract of astronomical figures), the two others, Sankar Roy and Suvam Sen were men with decent experience at the top level.
The euphoria didn’t last long. Rather, all hopes evaporated in the very second match of the Indian Super League (ISL), against arch-rivals ATK Mohun Bagan. If the 0-3 defeat wasn’t humiliating enough, the performance of Bhattacharya was like rubbing salt on the wound. He could have saved a couple of goals, the fans claimed.
Things haven’t improved over the months. Since then, SC East Bengal have played 11 matches, logging just six points. While it would be absolutely unfair to put the blame on the custodians, none of their three ’keepers performed to the extent it was expected.
But then, why blame the East Bengal goalkeepers alone? The eighth edition of the ISL has gone past the halfway mark, but none of the goalkeepers in the 11 competing sides could really impress so far -- while the established ones have often failed to live up to their reputation, the new kids on the block have left everyone disappointed too.
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It is no secret that India’s finest goalkeeper, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, is no longer enjoying the same lethal form that made him a star in the matches against Asian champions Qatar or Thailand. His club Bengaluru FC are currently having troubled times in the league -- Gurpreet too isn’t really helping his team’s cause under the bar. Almost the same can be said about Gurpreet’s India teammate Amrinder Singh, another high-profile recruit of big-budget Kolkata side, ATK Mohun Bagan. In more than one match he left his team embarrassed – so much so that ATK MB are now reportedly looking for new faces under the bar.
“I have watched almost all the matches this season. I am sorry to say no goalkeeper has impressed me so far,” says former India captain Bhaskar Ganguly, a legendary goalkeeper in the 1970s and ’80s. “The big names are definitely on the decline. The upcoming ones are yet not mature, they commit too many mistakes,” he said.
The other day, Ganguly said, he watched a match that ended in a 1-1 draw. “I would partly blame the goalkeepers for both the goals. On the first occasion, the ’keeper should have come out and at least punched the ball away. During the other goal, the goalkeeper had the duty to alert the central defenders. These are the basics. Any goalkeeper playing at this level should know it,” said Ganguly.
If what Ganguly said was partly true, then it should have come as a surprise for anyone following Indian football. Unlike yesteryears, when goalkeepers were the most neglected lot of both clubs and national teams, there is a specialised goalkeepers’ coach attached with all clubs and franchises in the top tier of Indian football currently. Barring a few lucky ones like Virender Singh, all others are qualified foreign coaches and well-paid by their employers. They have come from all over the world -- Argentina, Spain, Serbia, the Netherlands, Romania, England and so on.
Then why are the Indian goalkeepers not performing to the extent they were expected to? Even the next-in-line custodians like Dheeraj Singh or Mohammed Nawaz have failed to raise the bar for themselves.
Former India goalkeeper and Arjuna award winner Brahmanand has a simple solution to this problem. “It doesn’t matter how much coaching a goalkeeper gets, especially when he wants to reach the next level. In our days, we received little coaching. The situation was no different in the national team. Maybe at times we got some valuable tips from coaches like PK Banerjee or Arun Ghosh. But we enjoyed an advantage of a different kind.
“We were lucky to play many more matches than the current lot. Back in those days we played between 50 to 60 matches in a season; all over the country, in all kinds of surfaces, against top teams as well as completely unknown opponents. It truly hardened the goalkeepers. No goalkeeper, however talented he may be, can improve by playing a maximum of 25 matches in a season. One has to face different situations to improve.”
An Indian coach, attached with one of the franchises and doesn’t want to be named, alleged that a section of the foreign goalkeepers’ coaches is doing precious little as per the value addition is concerned.
“If good work is being done, then please tell me why those goalkeepers who have been playing since the I-League days are still so much in demand and command such fat salaries? It is because there is no one around to replace them. I was surprised to learn that a particular club is trying to bring back Subrata Paul in the squad. What happened to their second line of goalkeepers? Or their youth development programme,” asked the coach.
Former India goalkeeper Tanumoy Basu, who spent nine glorious seasons with Mohun Bagan and now a qualified goalkeepers’ coach, feels having specialised academies is the only solution to the problem.
“I think many of the current lot of goalkeepers have technical deficiencies. And it is not their fault. It has to be improved at a younger age and for that you need to have academies for goalkeepers in every zone of the country. At the same time, the players should receive enough opportunities to play. Otherwise, I can’t see things getting better,” says Tanumoy.
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His national team colleague in the late 1980s, Henry Menezes, spoke along the same lines. “It is time we revived tournaments like the DCM Cup, Rovers Cup, Stafford Cup, Darjeeling Gold Cup or Sikkim Gold Cup besides I-League or the ISL. Playing more matches will definitely help the cause,” said Henry.
Now the deputy chairman of the AIFF technical committee, Menezes reminisces the time when he donned the national colours. “Starting from Bhaskar Ganguly to Brahmanand to Atanu Bhattacharya, who were my immediate seniors, there were so many good goalkeepers across India those days that I always thought my dream of playing for India would remain unfulfilled. I was lucky to be picked up, finally,” said Henry with a laugh.
Henry wasn’t wrong. Indian goalkeepers had built a reputation in Asia from the 1950s onward. Peter Thangaraj had been selected for Asian All- Star team more than once, something which was emulated by Atanu Bhattacharya in the 1980s. In between Sampath, Sudhir, Ganguly and Brahmanand left their footmarks under the Indian bar with great authority. Subrata Paul and Gurpreet Sandhu continued the good work with equal competence.
But for some reasons, no extraordinary talent could be spotted in the last one decade. While some flattered to deceive, others failed to reach the next level.
The Indian coach attached with an ISL franchise, however, had the most important thing to say. “This is not exactly a specific problem about goalkeepers alone. It is the failure of the system that includes goalkeepers too. If anyone pinpoints at all other positions in the field of play and seeks a report on Indian players, he or she may not find too many encouraging words to say.”
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