FIFA U-17 World Cup puts India on the footballing world map
I hope that galvanises more investment, better coaching, training, and scouting for youth players, and more opportunities for local footballers to pursue meaningful careers in the sport. I also hope it wins the national football team even a portion of the support lavished upon India’s celebrity cricketers.columns Updated: Oct 06, 2017 17:52 IST
As somebody who loves football, I have always been a bit envious of people who can look forward to following their country at a World Cup. I was in Germany in 2006 when the World Cup was staged there. I joined throngs of Trinidadian “Soca Warriors” in Nuremburg, watched Angolans pray in the main cathedral in Cologne, and got swamped by a horde of Australians in Berlin. There is a carnival-like atmosphere to the tournament, which like a great fair doubles as a gathering of peoples. It didn’t matter that I had no representatives among the teams in Germany, I could still share in the joy of others.
In Frankfurt, we ran into two young men draped in Indian flags. They were actually British Indians, and with typically wry English humour they revealed why they were flying the Tricolour across Germany: “This is the only way India will ever get to the World Cup,” they laughed.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have something more than vicarious access to the passions of a football World Cup. It’s a pleasure to watch India win cricketing competitions, but the realm of cricket – inflated by the sheer numbers of the Indian subcontinent – is fairly provincial compared to football. I long for the elusive day that I might see India reach football’s truly international centre-stage.
At the time of writing, India had yet to play its inaugural game in the U-17 World Cup, in which our young talent took on the best of the United States. Even as hosts, India goes into the tournament as decided underdogs. Whatever India manages to accomplish on the field is secondary to what it seeks to gain in stature by hosting this youth competition. The U-17 World Cup puts India in a place it hasn’t been for years: on the footballing world map.
I hope that galvanises more investment, better coaching, training, and scouting for youth players, and more opportunities for local footballers to pursue meaningful careers in the sport. I also hope it wins the national football team even a portion of the support lavished upon India’s celebrity cricketers.
I’ve always been drawn to how football distils whole countries into a handful of men. It is a trembling crucible of identities. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote astutely that nations become tangible through sport, that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”
There are obvious clichés conflating football teams and their national identities. The Germans are routinely (and often incorrectly) characterised as methodical and efficient. The Japanese are technical and clinical. Even though their team is composed of players with all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, the Americans are known for their bludgeoning Protestant work ethic. The Brazilians allegedly play “samba” football, expressing a vibrant musical culture on the field (this has not really been the case for a long time).
But teams can stand for more than cultural stereotypes. I was in rural Kerala during the final of the 1998 World Cup. On a grainy TV screen that had to be thwacked a few times to clear the picture, I remember watching Zinedine Zidane leap above the Brazilians to head France to victory. That French team represented a changing nation; it was drawn heavily from immigrant communities, so much so that the grumbling far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen dismissed it as “not a real French team.” France’s talisman Zidane was born in Algeria. Other players hailed from Senegal, Ghana, and the French Caribbean. In winning the World Cup, they offered a glimpse of the real France, given shape on the field even as it remained difficult for many Frenchmen to process off the field.
The Indian football team represents the breadth of the country. It boasts players of Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Muslim backgrounds, from places as disparate as Kerala and the northeast (the under-17 squad is particularly full of players from the northeast, the growing centre of Indian football).
They are of course rather far from the international glory the French won in 1998; reaching a World Cup remains a remote prospect. But few other entities in Indian life capture this microcosm of the nation. Even a modicum of success would help exhibit to the world and – more importantly – to Indians the remarkable diversity that is their country’s greatest strength.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories.
The views expressed are personal