Football in India – It Just Ain’t Cricket

Posted on July 3, 2011 by

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For a country of 1.2 billion people, one might be forgiven for expecting India to be among the world’s footballing superpowers.  They should at least be one of the best teams in Asia, right?  Well, not really.  Standing at a lowly 147th in the FIFA World Rankings, behind such giants of the game as Guinea-Bissau and Turkmenistan, you would be hard pressed to describe India as part of football’s elite.  Having emerged as one of the world’s strongest growing economies in recent years now would seem like an opportune moment for football in the region to kick on and prosper. My recent visit to the country however has left me unconvinced that the beautiful game can truly step out of the shadow of its colonial pastime cousin, that of cricket. So what is it that is holding football back?

I should start by stating that game’s popularity in India should not be questioned.  Indian football has a fairly rich history that stretches back to the introduction of the sport by British colonials in the 1880s and you don’t have to travel too far to see a native walking the streets in a fake Lampard or Rooney jersey. But herein lies part of the problem; whilst there is interest in the big teams in Europe, the domestic game fails to inspire.  Ask a local who they support and they will more than likely name a top team from England, Italy or Spain.  Finding a fan of Dempo SC or East Bengal Club is far more difficult.  If India is to exploit the potential of its vast population it must first attract interest in its own domestic game.

The failings of the Indian national team are one major reason why the sport has not taken off in the way that it might’ve.  Since becoming a FIFA member in 1948, India has not once qualified for the World Cup finals on merit. They were invited to participate in Brazil 1950, however their invitation came only as a result of a number of the other entrant countries pulling out.  Even then the team did not actually take part. The Indian governing body, the AIFF, opted against travelling.  Their decision was made in part due to a lack of preparation time but more pertinently because of their failure to understand the importance of the event.  This is an example of the kind of poor decision making that has hampered the sport’s progress from the top down.

The Indian cricket team have had a touch more success than their footballing counterparts

The domestic league system lacks focus and cohesion. The establishment of the I-League in 2006 has gone some way to correcting this, however, much more needs to be done to improve its popularity.  Average attendances stood at a miserly 3,913 during the 2010-2011 campaign, largely because games kick off at 4:00pm when people are at work or school.  With such poor attendances clubs really struggle to make money, to the point where two teams have been forced to disband in the past two years.  Clearer financial planning and marketing strategy is desperately required.

Part of the blame can also be laid with the media.  Coverage of the I-League and the national team is sparse in comparison to the Premier League or international cricket.  Whilst TV channels broadcast IPL and ICC World Cup highlights back to back, finding somewhere to watch India’s AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers proved a bridge too far for me.  How can fans be expected to follow their national team if the games aren’t on TV?  Furthermore, the Indian audience is given no choice but to disregard I-League games as their broadcasting rights have failed to be picked up.

In order for the country’s footballing talent to be nurtured changes may be required on a more basic social level.  Cricket’s supreme status can be traced back India’s first Cricket World Cup win in 1983.  Since then the popularity and celebrity status of the game’s major players has rocketed.  Where in England school kids worship Rooney and Beckham, their Indian equivalents are Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh.  Parents encourage their children to pick up a bat rather than kick a ball because there is a greater associated prestige.  To become a successful cricketer is to become a star.  With football this isn’t the case.

Attempts however are being made to change this.  In fact, Indian football might be about to experience a revolution.  Inspired by the success of cricket’s IPL, plans have been drawn to replicate its success – this time on the football field.  “Premier League Soccer” is set to kick off its inaugural seven week season in January 2012.  Constricted to the state of West Bengal, the league will consist of 6 franchises and each of which will supposedly include a “world star.”  Whilst the leagues co-founders realise tempting the likes of Messi and Ronaldo is out of the question, tentative contact has been made with the likes of Edgar Davids, Junichi Inamoto and former Brazilian international Denilson.

Junichi and Edgar mull things over

Whilst names such as these would represent a relative coup for the Indian game and they could potentially boost interest in the competition, is this really what Indian football requires?  A common criticism of the Premier League is that the influx of foreign stars has negated the development of home grown talent.  Well in the I-League things are no different, with the competition’s all time top scorers list being dominated by Nigerians.

Fostering local talent in Goa, Kerala and West Bengal, where the game is commonly played amongst youngsters, should be the authorities’ top priority.  Attracting forgotten has-beens of the international game should not. But when local football pitches are made to give way for cricket games, you wonder whether or not the initiative can ever truly be seized and the correct infrastructure for talent development provided.  Recent scouting missions by the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea are encouraging but there is still much work to be done.

During my time in Goa I spoke to a 20 year old football fan who had received a pair of top-of-the-range Adidas football boots as a gift from a British holiday maker.  Rather than put them to good use on the rock hard pitches of Calangute, he instead unscrewed the studs and wore them to the local night club. One hopes that Indian football will one day be able to stand on its own two feet better than I imagine he could that night on the dance floor.  And maybe, just maybe, with the right guidance, one day it can.

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