Football – on the rise in India

A game played by millions, loved by billions.

If someone were to ask me to name something that would transcend regional, national and communal boundaries, uniting a billion strangers for a common cause, my answer would be football.

First played in 1863 in England, the game has developed by leaps and bounds, from a mere pastime to the most followed sport in the world! Football today is not just a sport, it is a major business for the entertainment industry. Such has been its impact that it is said in 1969, in Nigeria, a civil war was temporarily suspended so that the people could watch Pele, one of the greatest footballers, in action. Phenomenal!!

A fairly technical game, the rules have continued to evolve to better suit the players as well as keep the sport competitive. In a nutshell, football is played on a rectangular field, of standard dimensions and with clear boundaries, between two teams of eleven players each. The eleven players comprise of one goalkeeper and ten outfield players. 

The goalkeeper, as the name suggests, protects the goal and stops the opposition from scoring goals. The keeper is the only player allowed to handle the ball within an 18 yard box in front of the goal. Players are further designated as Defenders, Midfielders or Forwards depending on the area of the field in which they are positioned. On top of that we have the offside rule, out of bounds rule and what not. This never ending plethora of rules make football one of the most technical sports.

However, by the grace of the footballing Gods, winning is fairly simple. You just have to score more goals than the opposition. And hold onto that lead for 90 minutes. This usually involves keeping your opposition from scoring goals and scoring goals yourself. No mean feat considering you have to battle it out in the field. 

Football is much more than a sport. It is a blend of sentiments, emotions, blood and tears. A game of major twists and turns, a match is no less than a major drama where, in the blink of an eye, fortunes change. We have had moments which were not only game changing but have also had their impact on the game as a whole. In this fast paced ruthless game, all it takes is a moment of greatness or mediocrity to define your legacy.

Mere rules or words can never sufficiently describe this beautiful game. It is a game of emotions and sentiments. A game that has brought together billions of people, from diverse backgrounds and heritage, to shout, scream, rejoice and cry over the actions of 22 unknowns on a playground far away. Herein lies the true beauty of the game. Billion hearts. One beat. Football.

The story in our motherland is different though. India continues to remain untouched by this football fever. While we have a plethora of fans following the English premier league, La Liga and  Bundesliga, we tend to hardly follow the domestic league or the national team for that matter. We need to turn back time to better understand the reasons.

How often have we heard people asking the same question, “When will India play in the FIFA World Cup?”

Former Indian Football team Captain Bhaichung Bhutia had a simple answer to

this question; “I think that will remain so till we have a strong sporting culture, a strong football culture.” In India there isn’t a strong sporting culture but a strong Cricket Culture.

Sporting culture development starts from a young age. In our country during the past 4 decades  the children have been inclined towards cricket because that was the sport which was played in their locality, consumed on the television, ingrained in them from a young age. The 1983 World  Cup win was a huge catalyst in establishing a cricket culture in the country. The parents of the children have been consumers of the sport and had ambitions that their child would represent the nation one day.  Parents encouraged the children to take up cricket as a sport. That has not been the case with other sports which has led to a non-establishment of a sporting culture.

Some people are of the opinion that India lacks the necessary infrastructure to qualify for the

FIFA World Cup. However that argument can be debunked by the tiny island nation of Iceland and the success it has achieved in the major tournaments. In recent years many multinationals like Reliance IMG have joined hands with the association in establishing infrastructure necessary to develop youngsters from a young age in the beautiful sport.

At the end of the day parents are the decision makers for the children and therefore establishing a positive relationship with them is of prime importance. Workshops relating to football, parent-children games. More dialogue can be conducted with the parents so as to give them knowledge of the sport and make them more aware about the beautiful game.

If we talk about the national team, it is obvious that the government needs to start providing proper funds to the AIFF( All India Football Federation).  This includes resources to make better stadiums and solid infrastructure. We need autonomous organizations that can scout for talent and promote football at a scholastic level and also fund for the necessary development. It is pertinent that we don’t let the fear of financial security dampen the spirits of future footballers; for the same reason we must pool in our resources into making the sport more profitable and entertaining. If the national team are to improve further, Indian football needs to improve grassroots facilities and coaching. Another important aspect of football is social awareness. Although close to 100 million viewers tuned in to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup, that is just 10% of the entire population of the country while the last T20 World Cup held in India was watched by more than 700 million people.

Viewership is not the focus here, it is actually the reach of the sport. How can anyone expect football to be relevant in India when most of the country doesn’t even know it exists in the first place. However, ISL (Indian Super League) managed to get a record 216 million viewers which is a sign of growing interest.

It is clear that football still has a long way to go before it can match cricket in terms of popularity and revenue generation.

That in itself is a huge challenge, but there is no doubt that the youth, who were already fascinated by big names like Manchester United , Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona, have taken interest in the national team as well as ISL.

If we can produce a few Maradonas or Beckenbaurs- from the slums – homegrown heroes to propel a nation’s pride – then the sleeping football giant might just start to stir.

Then maybe, we might have a shot at making it to the World Cup.

  • Asawari, Mihir and Prajwal

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