When Will India Have An International Football Star?

Posted by Tanya Gupta in Sports
March 6, 2018

“Indian Football needs a world cup win, similar to Indian 1983 Cricket world cup triumph. An international hero like Messi or Neymar from India will be icing on the cake.”

Data Source-FIFA/Coca-Cola World ranking (www.fifa.com)

The history of football in India dates back to the late 1930s when the country was home to some of the oldest football clubs in the world and also to the world’s third oldest competition, the Durand Cup. Calcutta F.C. was the first club to be established in 1872, and at one time, football was the national sport. Despite the eight decades of history, why has India failed to produce any international star?

There is no doubt Indian football players are talented, as the country has produced stars like Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri. Ironically, the goal per match ratio of Chhetri is 0.57, which is better than Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentinian captain Lionel Messi. Chhetri is the 4th highest goal scorer with 54 goals; only four goals less than Messi. Yet he is not an international star.

When one thinks of sports in India, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘cricket’, the only sport that is celebrated nationally.

However, cricket now finally meets its potential competitor, football. This journey of Indian football is arduous but worth telling. Some major turning points of this journey were by default participation in the 1950 World Cup, victory in the 1951 Asian Games, the advent of the Indian Super League (in 2013) and the U-17 FIFA world cup.

Can this upturn bring Indian football back to its glory of the 1950s and 1960s? The answer is complicated.

The All India Football Federation and private clubs have to deal with issues of infrastructure, player’s salary, security of players, international exposure and recognition, and sound administrative structure, among others.

Amidst all the hardships, Indian football is still blessed with the advent of private clubs, football schools, and non-profit organisations, all of which are striving hard to produce talented players across the nation. These institutions are perhaps behind Indian football’s gradual movement from traditional college football clubs to international exposure.

The Indian Football Foundation (IFF) is one such institution. IFF is a not-for-profit organisation which is especially focused on helping talented young footballers from economically weaker backgrounds become professional footballers.

IFF works in collaboration with the Bhaichung Bhutia Football School (BFFS), exposing their talented players to world-class coaches and training. IFF support footballers in the age group of 7 to 19 years by providing various financial (in certain cases fully subsidised) and nonfinancial resources. Additionally, it supports multiple coaching development programs and related projects of football infrastructure.

“Indian Football needs a World Cup win, the way India won the 1983 Cricket World Cup”, says Kishor Taid, COO of Indian Football Foundation. That’s the ultimate formula for promoting football in the country, he says. He adds that for intensive media attention to encourage football among common people, all Indian football needs is an international hero like Messi or Neymar, with a World Cup as an icing on the cake.

He also says during an interview that infrastructure issues in the country are being readily addressed by renovating existing football stadiums across the country, building new modern and world-class stadiums as well as practice pitches. Mr Taid is also the member of AIFA.

New stadiums were built before the U-17 FIFA World Cup last year. Mr Kishor says that the effect of the Indian Super League is such that as many as six new football stadiums had been built to host the matches, and recently Jamshedpur became the newest venue.

The COO of IFF questions the attitude of Indians towards sports in general. The biggest struggle in promoting football, he thinks, stems from the lack of a sporting-culture. He explains, “Indians play a sport for the sake of playing only. Children don’t choose it as a career nor do parents encourage their children for it. We still prefer a nerd over a sports freak.” The case is worst, according to him, when it comes to women. When Mr Taid was asked about the condition and promotion of women football players, he answered, “IFF found out that women are less inclined (compared to men) towards football, and cultural barriers also act as an impediment.”

An under-14 player of BFFS (Delhi centre), Bodhisattva Sharma, unveils the lesser-known issues in football, the first being the sloppy procedure of promoting talented players in the national team. Bodhisattva explains that “if the team doesn’t perform well in leagues, state or regional levels, the scouts for the ‘national Indian team’ selection don’t pay much attention to the talented players of a losing team. These talented players being on the losing team usually don’t get the chance of being promoted and thus their career halts”.

The second is ‘forged issuing of birth-certificates’, he says. “In the under-14 team, officials make under-17 players play the match. A lot of average players play in junior teams”, Bodhisattva says, expressing his displeasure. A Lionel Messi fan, Bodhisattva, who has been selected twice in the Delhi state sub-junior Team – once as a vice-captain – is playing football for more than five years and has witnessed unleveled field surface many a time. He states, “Most of the grounds that are available in India are not that good, they are not levelled properly. This increases the chances of injury during the game. There are good fields but not many.” Bodhisattva calls Indian football fields ‘crumbly’.

Bodhisattva has an advice: “Just as football is a team game, the achievement in developing a sport in a country is also supposed to be a teamwork. Hence, there should be dedication among players, governing bodies and officials to football.”

In not so perfect world of Indian football, Bodhisattva is quite elated with the training facilities, accomplished coaches, skilled physio, and top-notch technology available in BFFS.

BFFS offers an international summer trip, in places such as Spain, Portugal, Netherland, Holland, and France, once a year that gives players international exposure. These trips are subsidised and free of cost for the players who come from a weak economic background. Bodhisattva is hopeful for his future as a football player. We wish the same for talented players in our country, and that they do not get stuck due to the inefficiencies of the system.

The launch of ‘Khelo India’ program by the Indian government is a ‘watershed moment’ in the history of Indian sports, as the program aims at the inclusive development of sports by mainstreaming it in society. The ‘Khelo India School Games’ in the year 2018 proved to be a big hit, in terms of active participation by young players and viewership. This one of a kind, inclusive and multi-dimensional program can be a boon if implemented well.

Yes, football in India has kick-started its journey on a promising note, but a lot has yet to be fixed. Big corporate houses and dedicated football schools may have jumped in the arena, but, honing the talent and skill of players is also needed. Private football schools need to revamp their fee structure, balancing the talent and economy of players who come from middle-class families. More league matches should be held, and their purpose should not be just to play matches, but also to promote the players. Hero I- League and ISL have been held for several years now, yet, we are waiting for at least one ‘desi-international star’ and FIFA world cup participation. The U-17 FIFA world cup in 2017 was just a ripple in water; a strong wave is what’s needed for taking the Indian football team to the world.