Traditionally well-known for its cricket, football in India, however, was equally revered in the 60s, when the likes of Jarnail Singh, PK Banerjee and Sailen Manna ruled the charts. Because of their tough tackles and smart set-pieces, Indian football achieved several accolades like the gutsy participation in the 1948 Olympics, where they narrowly lost to France 2-1 and their triumph in the Asian Cup in 1962.
In spite of the challenges in training and conditioning that the game demands, the country’s footballing prowess have grown immensely over the years. India has seen several high-profile coaches like Bob Houghton who guided the team a place in the Asian Cup in 2011, and specialist Stephen Constantine who has a proven track record of guiding low ranked teams uphill.
Whatever be the reason, the momentum is surely helping. Today, Indian players have more exposure with the likes of Sunil Chhetri who played for Kansas City Wizards in the MLS and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who plays in Norway for Stabaek FC. Also, the internet has been a massive boon in helping to pick up and learn the tricks of the trade. Also with the use of scientific apparatus and proper nutrition, players are less injury-prone and generally in fitter shape to perform at the highest levels.
The emergence of the IPL (Indian Premier League) has given a boost to other sports, especially in bringing about a shorter and more exciting version of the game. So with the arrival of ISL (Indian Super League) in 2014 and with the likes of Del Piero, Robert Pires or Luis Garcia rubbing shoulders with Indian players, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for players to learn and improve their talents further.
Foreign players bring with them their own techniques, and more importantly a better professional outlook – something that has been lacking in Indian football. The ISL has helped boost football’s popularity immensely. It has also helped in finding new talents like Sandesh Jhingan or Jerry Lalrinzuala who have shown a lot of promise.
Also, players are given a cover in their salary cap in case of an injury, therefore making the league extremely professional. This has helped attract talents like Iain Hume, Nicolas Anelka and Elano Blumer, who play at the highest levels, thus making the league extremely popular. The ISL also has a fan in Arsene Wenger.
Indian football has certainly arisen due to a variety of reasons like lack of bureaucracy, transparency, better training and coaching standards. However, one shouldn’t be complacent as recruiting talents from the grassroots is the need of the hour. The game is widely played, and unlike cricket, it is not expensive, so there is little need of depending on government investment.
Also, it is imperative that a road map is charted with ex-footballers who can give practical insight towards achieving a slot either in the World Cup or Asian Cup. It is important that one plays more international friendlies to improve rankings and attract attention from Europe and America.
Also, there have been rumours of scrapping the I-League – which is the domestic parent league where the likes of Mohun Bagan, Churchill Brothers play – and have that replaced or merged with the ISL. Such an action, however, needs proper deliberations as firstly, the ISL has no recognition from FIFA. Moreover, it cannot be done without hurting the interests of traditional clubs which have a rich legacy. So, it is important to consult all the stakeholders in such a situation.
Finally, it is also important for the government to take a more proactive role in scouting rich talents across the length and breadth of the country, attracting not only the finest coaches but also physios, nutritionists and doctors.
India will be hosting the Under-17 Football World Cup this year and this is a perfect opportunity for the world to take notice of the Indian team and their players who could be the next Messi or Ronaldo in their own right. As the great Pele once said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
Indian football is indeed arising.