The giant was sleeping. It had been sleeping for some time now. A large number of people around it had given up hope. They were convinced that it was dead. ‘It will not get up again, let alone rise.’ They had left it to rot. As a few stood and watched, others taking advantage of the sleeping giant started taking away its belongings. Profiting from the giant in its state of quasi death. The fact that you could still make some money off this giant was enough to distract most from the real issue – the giant was dying and unless urgently given aid it would never recover.
This is the state of Indian Football today. Each minute it is progressing fast towards its impending death. 0 out of 5. That is the number of games the Indian Football team has managed to win in its 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
For those not in the know, India did qualify for the 1950 FIFA World Cup finals, it is separate story that due to a lack of funds we could not send a team to Brazil to play the matches. In fact the period from 1951 to 1962 is often considered the golden era in Indian football. The Indian team won the 1951 Asian Games, finished fourth in the 1956 Olympic Games and went on to win the 1962 Asian Games. India was not just good at playing the game but also good at strategizing. India was the first team to field a 3-5-2 formation, a formation that was very successfully used by Brazil in the 1958 World Cup.
From the 1960’s, other Football playing nations charged forward through a focus on infrastructure and player and league development. Indian Football was left behind.
“At the end of the day the health of any sport is equivalent to the health of the nation team. In the 1970s our team’s performance started deteriorating and it has continued on a downward slope since. Till this basic fact changes nothing can pull Indian football out of the quicksand it finds itself in” laments Debayan Sen, a multi-sport commentator & presenter for radio & TV.
Let us not let a shiny league (ISL) created with foreign stars (mostly retired) distract us. A two-month Football extravaganza is not enough to change the fate of Indian football.
Modelled on the Indian Premier League (T20 Cricket), The Indian Super League (ISL) featuring 8 teams was founded in 2013 by IMG Reliance with its inaugural season starting on 12 October 2014. The excitement around the ISL is more due to the celebrity owners such as Sachin, Sourav, John Abraham and retired international footballers such as Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka rather than due to the Football on display. Somehow Football is only secondary. The focus is more on which Bollywood or Cricket star attended the game!
Football anchor, Joe Morrison was very vocal in his disappointment with the league and questioned the league’s priority “The biggest League in the world the Barclays Premier League shuts down for International matches yet the ISL has a game the same night as India face Oman. What a farce.“ – Joe Morrison, Football anchor.
Let us not let the 7 day visit of a Football legend (Pele) make us believe that just his sheer presence will inspire an entire generation to take to Football.
“Pele’s visit to India is great for nostalgia lovers but will do little to improve our football skills or performance“– Sundeep Khanna, Executive Editor at HT Mint, adds.
The ultimate solution has to be bottom up. In India we do have fans of Football but unfortunately hardly any fans of Indian football. All our solutions need to be created to solve this one problem – How do we get our national team to do better?
Until that happens we will be stuck in a state of limbo. A paralysis. Indian Football is sick and it needs to take the hard steps to fight the root cause of its problems. The clock is ticking.
Melbin who is currently working with Bengaluru FC as the Manager for their Soccer Schools feels “The major issue with development of the national team is the lack of initiatives and accountability from the local football associations. To develop a team we need solid grassroots development program. Playing football should ideally start at the age of 5. Focus areas in each age group is: 5-8 for motor skills and basic skills, 8-11 – advanced skills, 11-14 brain development and decision making, 14-17 physical training, social development and tactical game play. All this to make sure that by 17 a player can play football with a club in their first team. Development of grassroots players can happen only through coaches who can break down the details and communicate the same to children.“
“But coaching alone won’t solve the problem. Where is the infrastructure?” says Atishay, former editor Goal.com. “There’s a severe shortage of quality infrastructure when it comes to football. The lack of proper pitches is alarming. What’s worse is that even the best clubs in the country are failing to produce or maintaining quality football pitches. Poor pitches severely hinder the development of good football and footballers.“
Indian Football is stuck in a vicious cycle. Indian football doesn’t find viewers because India is an extremely poor performer on the international stage. People don’t keep on watching defeats. Sponsors will come if there are viewers and viewers will come if the team starts winning. The team will win if the most talented players in the country play for the team. They will play if playing Football for India is a viable profession.
The only way to break this cycle, according to Aayush Dabas, Strategic Development, Marketing Division at FIFA is by “Pushing money into the market both from sponsors side and government. This will help develop infrastructure and show kids that football can be a long term future. That is the only way to retain talent and help improve the standards of the game. That is the only way Indian Football will get its own superstar. Bhutia & Chhetri have been India’s best players over the last decade or so, but neither of them have had the quality to make any sort of impact abroad. When an Indian finally makes an impact in the football world, it will inspire millions of Indians to watch, follow and play the game.“
We need to inspire the next generation to play Football. What we need is not 2 professional leagues at the very top. What we ideally need is one strong 10 month professional league with a proper, structured network of leagues around the country. That would mean a strong 2nd division to feed the professional league, as well as a university and school level league network across India which feeds the 2nd division league. A pyramid that is top heavy will collapse. We need to strengthen the base.
Indian football is a sleeping giant. Unless the All India Football Federation and its partners understand the severity of the situation and start taking concrete measures with a long term view, this giant will very soon forever go to sleep.
You can tweet your comments to me @rashi_kakkar.