Strong youth development system will help Indian football: Former National Youth Coach C. M. Ranjith
It is not active sportspersons alone who are badly hit by this pandemic that refuses to leave Indian shores but also those who play a part in the development of sports. One such interesting person is C. M. Ranjith, at one time considered a bright young football talent from Kerala who then went on to don several roles in the later years including the National Youth Coach, the Technical Director of Gokulam FC, Kerala's I-league team and what is more, 'tamil' expert television commentator during the ISL.
This ever smiling football-lover seems to have enjoyed every new responsibility with the same intent as he exhibited during his exciting playing days. And the enjoyment continues even as he contemplates new avenues of involvement in the sport of football in India.
It was nice catching up with Ranjith and sure enough what strikes one immediately on meeting someone closely involved with Indian football is to ask him how the sport is doing or not doing in the country! Expectedly Ranjith smiles it off. He knows there can hardly be a tougher question on Indian football than that. He had himself experienced a bit of it during his playing days and that is why he always carried the regret of never having represented the senior Indian side even though he had the potential to be there among the best.
“That scar remains still,” he would mumble. “I was in the national camp for the 1985 Nehru Cup and all set for induction into the team, even the India jerseys were distributed when alas, I was asked to join the Indian youth camp which was on simultaneously since there was a shortage of a striker there! There, as it happened, ended my hope of a senior national berth,” he remembers.
Only a footballer, who had been hailed as a hero once for having exhibited his immense talent as a striker in the Santosh trophy and other events and then later rose in fields like coaching and scouting talents in the sport to admirable levels, would understand what that one missing credit in his career meant.
Ranjith believes that the one factor so obviously missing in Indian football affairs is a clear vision. Change in the sport is understandable, as he said, but it had to be for a good result. Standards have to improve and FIFA and AFC advices have to be adhered to for development. But where the slip came was in not acknowledging the fact that sport thrives on the public patronage.
Even today people would talk of players of the eighties and perhaps nineties mostly like Bhaichung Bhutia, I. M. Vijayan, Pappachan and the like. One reason was that their popularity lifted from the performances in the very many all India tournaments that used to be held all over the country.
Tournaments have faded away while the national championships have become a ritual and so what is left are the I-league and the ISL. At least giving the I-league its due would have been a big plus point but as the former footballer noted this was not to be.
Then again for someone who has had the experience of dealing with junior players at the national level, he said one key aspect missed was the uniformity of their upbringing in the sport. “Each region seemed to get used to a certain format of play like 4-3-3 or 4-2-4 and when the players attend national level selection, confusion was the first hurdle. Many good talents thus lose out.
The need for a national academy can never be overemphasised, Ranjith said particularly after the wonderful experience he had while assisting the English coach Colin Toal in activities under the youth development programme. “For over seven years from 2007, the best juniors came under his tutelage and that was a good beginning for the future. But Toal left and the intensity subsided and virtually ended. Most of these boys today serve clubs in the I-league and ISL, either playing or warming the benches and that was it,” he said, reflecting on the ground reality.
What a far cry from the earlier days! Ranjith himself remembers the time when he had gained so much attention. Coming from Brothers club, Kannur was good enough and then gaining prominence to be in Kerala team was his first big jump. Shining in the Santosh trophy event, with the best coming in the 1983 national in Chennai was the highpoint. He and Goa's Camilo Gonsalves became heroes overnight.
But ill-luck bogged Ranjith! When a national team was chosen soon after for a West Indies and China tour, he was not selected. Reason, he was considered still very young! Disappointment did not weigh him down. The SBI gave him a job and Chennai became his new home. Suffice to state, Ranjith in due course became a legend in the eyes of the Chennai football lovers for his goal-scoring brilliance. He rose to become Tamil Nadu coach and then as time went by, his sights set on the professional league.
The sport thus has brought him back to where it all started, in Kerala. Gokulam FC is utilising his services as head of the youth development wing. There is much he believes he can contribute, thanks to his experience at the national level. When time permits and the ISL is on, he has a welcome diversion in the TV commentary.
“I am not sure if I have the same kind of supporters as during my playing days but it is a good experience, expressing my views in Tamil,” he said. There is more to be done, he quips with a wink in his eye, preferring to keep mum on his future plans. But football will be the beneficiary for sure, knowing Ranjith's love for the sport.