Believe it or not, there was a time when India was actually pretty good at football. In the 1948 Summer Olympics, the first time India competed as an independent country, India played against France, stayed tied with them 1-1 until the 70th minute and ended up losing 2-1. This may not sound like a big deal, but it was, especially because most of the Indian team members played barefoot. Then in 1950, India qualified for the FIFA World Cup. However, we couldn’t compete barefoot, didn’t have enough practice time and didn’t have a final squad, so we had to withdraw from the competition. In 1951, we won football gold in the Asian Games, five years later we came 4th in the Summer Olympics and then, we won gold again in the 1962 Asian Games. We also came second in the AFC Asian Cup in 1964. But it was all downhill from there. We haven’t been placed in any of these tournaments since and apart from the 1950 qualification, we’ve never been able to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
So, what will it take for Indian football to go back to its 1950s and 60s glory days?
To truly develop their skills and talent, the one thing sportsmen need is practice, not only training but also competing. In the 1950s, India had a variety of tournaments like the Durand Cup, the Stafford Cup, the Santosh Cup and the Federation Cup, keeping our footballers busy throughout the year. More tournaments meant more players had the opportunity to hone and showcase their talents and this increased their chances of making it to the national team. It also increased the quality of football in the country. But today, we only have the Indian Super League and the Hero I-League, both fairly recent. If you don’t play in either of these, you probably won’t get the attention you need to succeed in Indian football, regardless of your talent. Furthermore, other than a once-a-year competition, we don’t have any youth leagues set up for under 13 and under 17 players. This means they don’t compete around the year and can’t develop as players by getting match time. This is important in promoting talent to the big clubs of the country and giving everyone an opportunity to flourish.
‘Astro Turfs’ may be popping up all over Mumbai, ‘infrastructure’ for people to play as long as they can shell out around ₹500 for a couple of hours. But that’s a lot of money for someone who needs to play at least 20 hours a week or more in order to match international or even national standards of the sport. And that’s just Mumbai, what about the rest of the country? So where infrastructure is concerned, India still lacks considerably; we desperately need more grounds. For a sport as big as football, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) doesn’t even have a national training centre.
When hosting tournaments, they have to look for suitable venues across the country, none of which are exclusively used for football. Even the six stadiums that were prepped for when India hosted the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup are stadiums that are shared with other sports as well.
Praful Patel, the Chief of the AIFF says it’s mainly because football as a sport doesn’t receive the funding it needs to flourish. The AIFF’s developmental unit, the Pailan Arrows were disbanded due to lack of financial commitment. Most of the funding comes from CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives when the government should be taking a more active role in encouraging this sport by financing it. Recently, India bid to host the Under-20 FIFA World Cup but lost the bid. Winning such a bid would have meant a lot of funding and infrastructure for Indian football, but the fact that we bid at all at least shows that there is a will to augment the sport in the country.
According to Sepp Blatter, the former President of FIFA, India is particularly a ‘sleeping giant’ of international football. The reason Sepp Blatter of FIFA used the words ‘sleeping’ giant is because he recognised the untapped potential our country has specifically in the sport of football. After cricket, football is the second most popular sport in terms of spectators. In the last ten years, the number of Indians that watch football tournaments on television has skyrocketed. The interest among young Indians is high and valuable enough that India’s sports channels to show the English Premier League, the Spanish and French Leagues and the Champions League live.
Sadly, only the Indian Super League is broadcasted in India because it’s the only league we have. Clearly, the interest among youth Indians is very much there, however, the attention required to turn this interest into skill and talent is nowhere to be found. While infrastructure is important to cultivate talent, it’s still secondary to actually bringing attention to the sport. For example, African and Latin American nations which are famous for their football teams, lack infrastructure just like we do, but they still produce world-class players because the sports still gets attention, culturally and from the government, which encourages players from low-income to play anywhere, even on the streets. And in the land of gully cricket, street football is not that much of a stretch.
For any sport to develop, the youth has to be encouraged to take up that sport, and for that, they need role models. Back in the 1950s, football players in India had a massive fan following in their places of origin and the stadiums overflowed with spectators during the games. However, today every child wants to be the next Tendulkar or Kohli. And that’s mainly because cricketers are put in the limelight long enough for them to become role models. But football fame is only found in some parts of the country. It is popular in the Northeast, Goa, Kerala and West Bengal, not in the Hindi heartland. This difference can be seen in the Indian team too. The players are mostly from the areas that are mentioned above. There is Fernandes, Borges, Gurung, and Khongjee but no Sharma or Kohli. If the sport is not encouraged in all parts of the country, children won’t be able to identify and relate to the players and be encouraged to take up the sport.
Individual sports like shooting, weightlifting, wrestling, tennis, badminton, and boxing (where most of our international successes have come) have loads of role models like Saina Nehwal, P.V Sindhu, Narain Karthikeyan, Abhinav Bindra and Vijender Singh. But other than cricket (which is a start-stop sport and not one where the entire team is always engaged in play), no team sports in India have adequate role models. Since they don’t even get endorsement deals, they’re not seen often enough to inspire the country’s youth.
Former India Captain Baichung Bhutia and current Captain Sunil Chhetri have both risen to become household names. After the 2017 football season, Chhetri managed to maintain a better goal to appearance ratio than Ronaldo and Messi by averaging 0.58 goals per game. In spite of these records, they do not nearly get the limelight that they deserve. They could serve as great role models to the next generation of aspiring footballers.
Football is only the tip of this iceberg. India’s infrastructure and landscape for all sports is severely lacking. Even when it comes to competing in the Olympics, India’s athletes don’t have access to basic training facilities, sporting associations are grossly underfunded, and government policies to fix these problems are duplicated and unfocused, and therefore don’t result in any concrete changes. India’s sports activities have a long way to go before we aim to qualify for the next FIFA World Cup.
Watch the video below to understand what makes India a “sleeping” Olympics giant.