By Navmi Krishna:
I still remember the first football match I saw on TV. It was the opening match of 2006 FIFA World Cup and Germany had demolished Costa Rica, 4-2. The gawky teenager who had been secretly disappointed about the absence of the charismatic leader Michael Ballack was mesmerized by the sheer energy of the players and the beauty of the game.
Fast forward 8 years and things are not much different. However, through all the frenzy of Zidane’s headbutt, Ferguson’s retirement and Germany winning the World Cup, there is a question that has haunted every Indian football enthusiast — when will the Indian football set the world or at least India, on fire?
The answers to this question have always been a permutation of words like ‘negligence, ‘lack of facilities’, ‘insufficient support from the authorities’, ‘lack of funds’ and ‘overshadowed by cricket’; all with good reasons. The fact that a good portion of Indian football enthusiasts who can tell you Zlatan’s height in their sleep, find it hard to recollect the name of the captain of the Indian National football team, speaks volumes about the hold Indian football has over its masses.
When Sepp Blatter, the current FIFA president, described India as a “sleeping giant” of football, he may not have been much off the mark. Indian football, with its rich history, has always been under-represented and the players have ended up playing second fiddle to the legitimate First Lady, Cricket. Even though clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting have managed to survive against all odds, it is a sad truth that there are hardly any clubs that the soccer fanatics of the country can identify themselves with. Even in Kerala, which has churned out many talented players like I.M Vijayan and Jopaul Anchery, the game of football, though widely played, is yet to be popularised as a profession. It is a great hobby-nothing more. As Nilanjan Datta of Times of India once wrote, “the coconut trees among the picturesque lagoons have, in fact, seen only the death of many a bold dreams.”
It is into this scenario that ISL makes its brave debut. Preceded by the I-League which failed to reach the expectations due to financial instability (among other reasons), Indian Super League has a huge burden to shoulder. The IPL-type football league, first launched in early 2011, has stoked much debate even before its official commencement. The latest ISL promo, unlike the first one, has been much criticised for giving undue focus to cricketers and film stars with just a glimpse of Alessandro Del Piero. It is indeed a matter of great distress that not a single Indian footballer, from past or present, is featured in the promo which boasts of the “birth of a footballing nation”. It is unclear whether footballers were asked to be a part of the feature or they were sidetracked completely.
However, a section of supporters see no harm in involving the celebrities. “Yes, they [the makers of the ad] could have included footballers too. But we have to remember that football is yet to be popularised in India. If including a bunch of celebrities can bring some much-needed visibility to this sport, then why not use them?” asks Ajay Reddy, an avid footballer. Sruthi Menon, a mass media student based in Bangalore remarks that too much attention is given to such trivial matters. “ISL is going to be big. It is set to be telecasted live across multiple channels and will even have vernacular commendatory. When was the last time this happened in football?”
Good or bad, ISL sure seems to be attracting a lot of attention. The mainstream media, which initially trotted around with an air of condescension, slowly seems to be catching up to this new phenomenon. The buzz in the air seems to be that ISL will surely go a long way in spreading the base of football across the nation. Whether it’ll go on to fulfil their vision of India becoming a global football power and qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, only time will tell!