Chhetri’s plea and what it says about sport in IndiaUpdated: Jun 08, 2018 00:52 IST
Monday last, after hearing captain Sunil Chhetri’s impassioned plea asking support for the football team, a big crowd turned out to watch India play Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup. It was to be an enriching experience for me in many ways.
The journey from Cooperage, where I collected my ticket, to the Andheri Sports Club where the match was played, took the better part of three hours in peak hour traffic and I made a quiet note to myself. Instead of driving such distances, taking a train is much smarter.
But in the context of the sentiment behind the match and what lay in store, this was trifling inconvenience. Almost 9,000 fans turned up for the game against Kenya. According to officials, the match was a sell-out, and the few hundred empty seats were only because those who had taken complimentary tickets didn’t show up.
There was ample reward for fans. The atmosphere at the stadium was that of a carnival and as it happened, India won 3-0. What’s more, Chhetri, playing his 100th international, scored twice, sending the crowd delirious.
The moot point though is whether this match would have been as successful had Chhetri not put out a video message a couple of days earlier on social media beseeching fans to turn out in support. The evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.
India’s previous match (June 1 against Chinese Taipei, won 5-0), had attracted barely 2,000-odd spectators. This establishes – if at all proof was still needed – the power of social media.
Political parties have understood this, as have film/TV producers and film stars, business houses and increasingly sportspersons.
Chhetri’s plea, amplified by other eminent sportspersons including Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, transformed a tepid tournament into a coveted one. Not just the match against Kenya, but the next one too, against New Zealand yesterday, was sold out; as, I understand, is Sunday’s final.
Some conservatives thought his video message unwarranted from an international player and captain at that. But that is missing the point completely. Even, more, it fails to understand the pathos that lies behind this.
Like all performing artists, sportspersons are inspired to do better when they have an audience.
Imagine a singer at a music concert at say MMRDA or an actor on stage at NCPA was confronted with empty seats. They would be in an existential void, as it were.
Chhetri’s predicament was similar. The public appeal may have been a trifle gimmicky, but the effort was to engage with fans to make the sport grow.
Ironically, while football is getting a lot of traction in India, it is rather more for overseas leagues seen on TV rather than matches played in the country.
Obviously, the difference in standard of play there and here is wide. But it is a chicken and egg situation for unless there is support from several quarters, how can quality improve here?
Multiple challenges lie ahead. Football authorities have to market the sport well, create heroes fans can identify with. Players in turn have to keep the quest for excellence burning and all of this contributing towards a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Chhetri in the video says that if players get spectator support, India’s footballers and the team will get better. This won’t happen overnight, of course, but the greatest virtue in sports lovers is of `keeping the faith’.
The crux of the matter is having an environment where sport is attractive – as much to the spectator as the player – irrespective of result.
This I believe is at the core of Chhetri’s video message. It goes beyond just match attendances. It is in fact aimed at making sport a prominent feature of our national ethos and psyche.