Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that
Liverpool coach Bob Paisley
If sports is modern-day religion, then for the next five weeks, football will be venerated as a global deity. No other sport has successfully touched a chord with so many millions across the globe as The Beautiful Game has. Thirty-two countries will compete for the Holy Grail of football, the Fifa World Cup. They will range from tiny Slovenia to five-time winners Brazil. Much has changed since the first World Cup in 1930 when barely 13 countries made the trip to Montevideo in Uruguay. On the road to South Africa, 208 countries participated in the qualifying matches (more than the Olympics, more than the member-countries of the United Nations). One thing hasn’t changed though: India will reaffirm its standing as a world-class spectator nation.
Ironically, India did qualify for the World Cup of 1950, but had to withdraw because its request to play barefoot was rejected by Fifa. The 50s and early-60s were, in fact, perhaps the only period when Indian football showed some signs of being able to compete at international level. India won the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games gold, and quite remarkably, finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics with a team that at the last could wear boots! In the current world rankings, India is ranked 133, just above Bermuda, Tajikistan and Barbados, but below Faroe Islands, Fiji and Luxembourg, the populations of which might barely match a south Delhi residential colony.
Why is it that the world’s second most populous country won’t be competing in the ultimate mass sports event? (Remember, even China qualified once for the 2002 World Cup.) There is, of course, the usual argument of how our obsession with cricket has reduced other team sports, including the original national game of hockey, to the margins. That may be true, especially in the deplorable manner in which major corporates have shunned sports outside of cricket. But it still doesn’t provide a full explanation as to why football should lose out in the manner it has. Brazilians are obsessed with football in the near-manic manner of cricket in this country. Yet that hasn’t prevented them from producing world-class teams in a range of other sports from volleyball to basketball.
It also isn’t as if Indians aren’t passionate about football. Watch a game in Margao, Shillong or Kozhikode, and the exuberance of the fans can match the best in the world. I have deliberately left out Kolkata, the home of Indian football, because Kolkata at one level has come to symbolise the decline of the sport. For Kolkatans, football for the longest time was about narrow parochialism: East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan was the ‘life and death’ contest. Instead of truly professionalising club football, Kolkata allowed it to lapse into a cesspool of mediocrity, much like the rest of Bengal.
For the longest time, the Calcutta Football League, played on poor grounds with limited infrastructure, appeared to satisfy the Bengali fans’ appetite for the sport. By the time the ineffectual football administrators woke up to the need to truly professionalise the league, it was simply too late. The rest of the world had left us far behind.
Ironically, the wake-up call came with the arrival of satellite television in the 1990s. Suddenly, the Indian football fan was exposed to the best talent in the world, not just once every four years at a World Cup, but virtually every weekend through the live telecast of the major soccer leagues. The quality of the football on show made us realise just how much we had lost out in a rapidly-changing sport, how second rate imports from Africa or Latin America could never be a substitute for the real thing. Today, a generation of Indians is being born who are Manchester United and Real Madrid fans and not that of an Indian football team; fans who idolise a Wayne Rooney before they would a Baichung Bhutia.
In a sense, this ‘globalisation’ of sport also provides an opportunity to revive football in the country. As the next few weeks will confirm, there is an enormous appetite to watch football in this country. The challenge is to translate this popular appeal for the sport into a genuine footballing culture. This would require, for starters, a need to shed a certain Brahminical disdain for playing physical ‘contact’ sport. Every school must have a football ground as a way to ‘democratise’ the sport, every child must be encouraged to kick the ball. Indian cricket has succeeded as it truly democratised itself, moving beyond the traditional elites of Mumbai and metropolitan India. Football, too, by laying a solid foundation in the North-east for example, can actually become an aspirational sport, an opportunity for the non-cricketing centres to find a place in the country’s sporting sun.
None of this will happen overnight. It will probably need a 20-year plan. We may never be able to compete with the physically superior Europeans and Africans, or the artistic Latin Americans. But as the relative football success of a Japan and even a China has shown, if there is a willingness to invest in the future, it’s possible to reap the rewards over time. We may never play in the World Cup in my lifetime, but can’t we at least work to recapturing some pride in the Asian context?
Post-script: Since I can’t wave an Indian flag at the World Cup, I am planning to make Portugal my team. My Goan blood won’t let me have it any other way!
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network
The views expressed by the author are personal