All is not Lost
It was just months after independence and the Indian football team had fared well against France in the 1948 London Olympics, losing 1-2 in a well contested encounter. A further two years down the line the team was invited to participate in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, which eventually did not happen because the Indians weren’t able to garner ₹ 40,000 to send the team to South America. From then to Anas Edathodika and Eugeneson Lyngdoh being picked up for ₹ 1.1 crore each at the Indian Super League (ISL) draft, you’d think Indian football has come a long way. But a look beyond the Indian shores and this myth is busted. From a very good showing at Melbourne in the 1956 Olympics to winning the Asian Games gold in 1962, India was still relevant in the global and, more specifically, Asian football landscape. Thereafter, it was the same Indian story of administrative mismanagement, tunnel vision and inability to market the sport. And berating cricket was the easy way out for administrators of the game. Cricket had taken away football’s share of the revenue was the refrain. It was more like a spoilt child complaining about a friend for having stolen his candy. I ndia ns today consume t he English Premier League (EPL) and the La Liga. They are crazy about the Champions League. So much so, 300-plus Indians travelled to Cardiff on June 3 to watch Real Madrid play Juventus in the Champions League final, each spending close to ₹ 2 lakh for a ticket. Back home, however, it’s a different story. Be it the I-League or the ISL, except in pockets like Kerala and Bengal, Indian football is struggling. The 96th ranking notwithstanding, things have gradually gone downhill over time. Goa, a football powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t have teams in the I-League anymore and teams like Salgaocar and Dempo are a mere shadow of their former self. JCT, a feared team in the 1980s, and Mafatlal have ceased to exist. However, with the U-17 FIFA World Cup round the corner, not all is lost. A revamped ISL with two new teams, Jamshedpur FC under the Tatas and Bengaluru FC promoted by JSW, does ignite hope. With corporate backing, Indian football has its base well covered. Reliance, RPSG, Tatas, JSW and others are serious players in the Indian business scene and football can only gain from their patronage.
Within a year, India has risen from 161 to 96 in the FIFA rankings and with domestic stars earning in millions, there is no reason why the game will not take off in India yet again. A structured junior programme and a systematic talent hunt round the country are dire needs and the more football academies proliferate nationally, the better it is for the beautiful game in India. It has been heartening to see FIFA U-17 World Cup tickets getting sold in a jiffy each time they have been made available online and that’s a development Indians should be proud of.
That football is still a burning passion was borne out when 1,00,000 people stood on both sides of the road with torches and placards welcoming Diego Maradona when he first visited Kolkata a decade earlier. The question is can this passion be translated into support for Indian football? Will these people travel the country and support theIndiaU-17teamastheystepout for their first World Cup match on home soil? Will they wear ATK or Mohun Bagan jerseys as opposed to Manchester United and Real Madrid? Will they queue up to watchJejeLalpekhluaandBikash Jairu in much the same manner that they do for Leicester City and Watford? Answers to these questions hold the key to the future of Indian football.