All is not Lost

The Economic Times - - Sports: The Great Games - Bo­ria Majumdar

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.

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