During my India trip in January 2009, I was passing by the Maidan area in Kolkata when a sight startled me. There were school children, all teenagers or in their preteens playing a game of football. They were from prestigious convent schools. On enquiring further, I came to know it was a casual match between two paras (localities). Coming to the startling point, few of the jerseys were number seven with the name ‘Dhoni’. They were either blue or yellow in colour. Few were black and gold, bearing number 12 and few more were different patterns of red, blue and white. The names I could see were mostly Ronaldos amidst a few Messis and Ballacks.
My friend didn’t take much note of this, as sports jerseys are very common with kids these days. I agree to him on that but common this was in Kolkata. This city has seen riots in the name of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. I had known this place as the Mecca of Indian football. If this is the state of affair in Kolkata, then what’s going on in the other parts! Generally, one wouldn’t come across kids, passionately playing football in England with all of them sporting Flintoff or a Peitersen merchandises. Or at least I haven’t seen an informal intense game of cricket in New Zealand played with Tana Umaga, Johna Lomu or any other All Blacks star’s jersey.
Maybe my friend was right that I was overreacting. But in India, one would not be surprised to see M S Dhoni’s or Cristiano Ronaldo’s merchandises doing business thousand times more than Sunil Chhetri’s. It’s unfair to draw such comparisons between Dhoni and Chhetri based on their national popularity. But both represent the nation in their respective sport, have done well and are into their fifth year of international career.
Over the years I asked this question to many, why isn’t Indian football very popular with Indians? An ardent elderly Mohun Bagan fan replied, “Obviously it is! I have been following all of it.” He spoke about the club since the days of P K Bannerjee and Chunni Goswami. Despite of my repeated interventions in Bengali, he went on in English, with all his ‘a’ pronounced as ‘o’.
A young club cricketer from South Mumbai replied, “Cricket rocks man! Unlike the whites, we Indians aren’t hooligans! We prefer a gentleman’s sport to soccer or rugby.” I wasn’t pleased with that reply, especially as it came from a sportsman. Moments later I was at Kurla station (in Mumbai), when the word ‘hooligan’ stung me.
An elderly neighbour of mine hates cricket. He was infuriated with our celebrations when India won the Twenty20 cricket world championship. One day, I put forward my question to him. He replied, “How can it be popular? Cricket takes Football’s entire share. Cricket should be banned!”
Answering my curiosity, one of my college friends who is into European football, and prefers calling the game ‘soccer’, crossed the limits. She said, “Maybe because Indian players aren’t as hot or cute as the likes of Rauls and Owens.” However that should worry the insane girls like her and of course gays, not regular sports lovers like me.
Seldom had I got any sensible answer. I always knew the fact that cricket’s popularity had nothing to do with football’s decline. Or rather football was never on decline, I am talking about Indian football here. People in India love football. As kids, in our colonies, bats and balls weren’t to be seen all of monsoon. In Kolkata, I have seen street fights on arguments on who is better: Maradona or Pele? During World Cups, Brazil fans would not dare to enter the lanes of Argentina fans. I am sure that the cricket boards reschedule their tournaments if they fall between a World cup or a Euro. I remember how all of us in our cricket crazed household missed important league games of the 2002 Natwest trophy whose initial stages fell during the concluding stages of the FIFA World Cup 2002. The sports pages of our newspapers are almost as full of the carryings-on in the English Premier League as they are of national cricket matches.
After passing out my graduation, I thought I found the answer to my curiosity. For the past three decades, India in cricket has been amongst the best, where in football, they have struggled to make a mark internationally. We play most of the outdoor sports in our school days but for any sport to have a national following, the national team has to excel. India followed hockey religiously till the time Astroturf took over grass and the national team’s decline began. It was Kapil Dev’s team who astonished everyone bringing home the 1983 Cricket World Cup and inspired ten year olds like Sachin Tendulkar. Since then cricket took over as the number one sport. I thought we can only see a renaissance of Indian football, if something similar happened to the national team or any of the players rose to stardom and inspired the youngsters.
However, it was the inaugural I-League 2007-08, which I was covering as a sports journalist, when I felt my above thoughts weren’t the exact solution. It was the same time I was doing some follow-ups on the European leagues as well. The competition in football is far too much than in any other sports. A side like England failed to qualify for the Euro 2008, so the fans don’t expect India to qualify for the World Cup finals anytime soon. I have observed that Indian fans in general have a rich taste for any sport. They have no clue about Indian basketball team but they follow NBA, they don’t know if Indian rugby team exists or not! But some do follow All Blacks and Springboks. We are fed with a whole lot of European football throughout the year. The expectations the fans seek are of the European level.
The standard of Indian football is not comparable to those in Europe, but to be honest it’s not ‘unwatchable’. The team needs supporters and fan following to excel. It is unfair to criticize the players that they don’t produce such standards. A stadium like Cooperage that too in an international city of Mumbai isn’t the place where one plays national level tournaments. Football comes third to Rugby and Cricket in terms of popularity in New Zealand. But even in the smallest of towns, the school matches are played in better stadiums than Cooperage. The pitches and the infrastructure are definitely better. Adding to the fact is that audience and the press watch matches without the fear of any wooden structure collapsing at any moment.
In December 2007, I had an informal conversation with Paul Shipwright, Arsenal’s Soccer School Development Manager. He had watched a few of the I-League matches and on being asked about the vast difference between Indian and European football’s standards he said that players can only perform and the levels can be set higher when proper infrastructure is provided. He felt none of the pitches that he had seen here are anywhere close to comparison with the west.
It’s rather easy to complain and criticize as fans, rather than raising voices for the right call. Has the Government taken up any serious measures to promote the game? Are the development programmes being carried out seriously? It’s high time that the national sports administrators show the same seriousness in other sports apart from cricket. The infrastructure is big time lacking. Players like Bhaichung Bhutia have been constantly raising their voices for the required developments still hoping in the twilight of their career that their voices will be heard.
The game in India has to be promoted as a marketable product. Clubs like Manchester United or Chelsea is doing more far better business in India than the local teams. Indian football needs to be marketable to the sponsors. Somebody has to take the initiative and a strong effort should be made in selling the sport. India isn’t short of rich industrialists and if they are willing to invest in something like Karnataka Premier League for cricket, then why not national football? It was a good gesture by the Board of Cricket Control in India for granting INR 250 Million for the development of football in India.
I recall a sad instance in May 2008, ahead of the SAFF Cup. Indian football skipper Bhaichung Bhutia was attending a promotional event in Mumbai, where the press kept asking him questions on the then ongoing cricket’s Indian Premier League. The sports media in India needs to look beyond cricket. The media plays an important role in promoting the national football. The media believes to feed the audience with what the latter looks for but it also works the other way around. The audience starts following, what’s in the media.
Concluding, my observation on Indian football has been dearth of ideas and an absence of innovation. And the results can very well be seen. However, I still believe it’s not too late. The administrators have a chance to redeem themselves. Professional management is needed in the era of live telecast and floodlights. Looking at the IPL or the award shows, we aren’t short of talented event managers. Like Australia and New Zealand, during the off season, international standard cricket venues can be used as viewer friendly stadiums for football. With Team India qualifying for the Asian Cup for the first time in 25 years and defending the Nehru cup successfully, one can’t deny that we aren’t short of quality. With right management and leadership, I can foresee Indian football reaching heights.