“Please come and support us, encourage us, watch us, abuse us, criticise us. Football in India needs you.” This appeal made by Indian football captain Sunil reverberated across various social media platforms. The emotional plea made by Indian Football team’s captain Sunil Chhetri not only showed the angst of the player but also of the plight of Indian football. Indian football team was once among the best teams in Asia, if not the world, but over the decades the country’s abysmal performances and decline of supporters, compelled him to deliver an emotional message to the Indian football fans. The third highest goal scorer currently active in the world, didn’t shy away from pointing out the challenges and obstacles in the path of country’s journey of becoming a footballing powerhouse.
The beautiful game of football enthrals millions of viewers across the globe, with its nerve-recking intensity and the magnanimity of the game. India on the other hand, even after so much of untapped potential lying at grass-root level and lack of investment has hindered the progress country made in the start of the 20th century. The pinnacle point for Indian National football team came between 1951 to 1962, when the team went onto claim several silverwares. However, in 1950, when Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup after a 12 years break, the governing body decided to reinstate the premier tournament after the end of Second World War. India was invited to participate in the prestigious tournament after several European countries backed out, but India’s football governing body AIFF decided against sending the team to Brazil, citing the lack of funds to send the contingent. Since then, the sports lost its popularity and soon the team dropped out of the echelons of Asian Football. As recent as 2014, the country was at its all-time low, as it ranked 171 out of 206 FIFA Associate Nations. There several factors that led to the debacle of the national team in the last 6-7 decades, although, the country has made progress in the last 3-4 years.
The key factors that led to the decline of Indian National Football Team:
1983 Cricket World Cup and the rise of cricket
One of the finest sporting miracles in the country’s brief history, the success of the Indian cricket team at the 1983 Cricket World Cup will forever be etched in the memories of every Indian. Kapil Dev led the Indian Cricket team in the World Cup final against the two-time World Cup winners West Indies, India against all odds shocked the cricketing fraternity by upsetting the world-beaters in West Indies’ team, ruthless pace bowling attack and devastating batting line-up. The iconic catch when Kapil Dev came running down towards boundary to catch Sir Vivian Richards’ misdirected shot, did not only changed the fate of Indian cricket team in the finals but changed the destiny of cricket in India. Cricket became a popular sports among the masses with the influx of investment and commercialisation, and soon became a “religion” in the country, while the other sports including football went into oblivion.
Lack of Infrastructure
Over the last few years Indian football team players have been equivocal about the lack of infrastructure plaguing the progress of the beautiful game in the country. Up until 2015, the country did not have a single stadium that was up to the marker laid down by the FIFA. Only a year before 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup, FIFA gave grading to several stadiums, including the host stadiums for the tournament in Delhi, Guwahati, Margao, Navi Mumbai, Kochi, and Kolkata. However, majority of the domestic stadiums are still way behind the standard set by FIFA deemed fit to play, while situation at grassroot level in the country is more pitiable, with no proper structures or training facilities available to the younger breed of footballers in the country. It sometimes forces players to switch to an alternate as it becomes really difficult to survive as a player without proper infrastructure for training or rehabilitation. The condition of the other stadiums is deplorable with distorted grounds, below-par spectator amenities, and dressing room facilities due to lack of funds from central and state governments.
Lack of Media Coverage
Media plays a quintessential role in spreading awareness among the masses, the popularity or the reach of a particular sport depends on the media coverage being provided to it. Over the years, the Indian media has played an instrumental role in promoting the sports of cricket and its rising popularity, with multi-billion dollar deals for coverage of domestic and international cricket matches. However, other sports including football have not been able to reap in the benefits of media coverage, as even today a lot of areas in the country do not get a chance to watch the live matches of Indian football team. The lack media attention and coverage has dampened the growth of football in India, as many of the people are not even aware of the names of the player representing the country, except for a few players. Compared to Western media where every sports gets an equal coverage, Indian media is still centred around cricket, although, things have started to improve in the recent years.
Youth Development Programmes
India has plethora of untapped young talent, that, if nurtured with proper coaching and state-of-the-art facilities can turn out to be world-beaters. But, sadly the lack of youth development programmes in the I-League clubs as well as other clubs have suffocated the aspirations and dreams of millions of youngsters. The Western countries ensure that clubs have youth development programmes as it gives the local young and nurturing talents a platform to launch themselves into the big foray, while helping in promoting the young talent pool.
The Road Ahead
Indian football has been on the rise since last 3-4 years, specially with the country’s FIFA ranking currently stands at 97 along with the inception of Indian Super League. People have started paying more attention to the game that was once neglected, the influx of investment has helped Indian Football’s cause. The gradual improvement can be reflected upon the National team’s performance and the growing popularity of the ISL clubs. Football is fast emerging as a sporting alternate in areas that were predominantly inclined towards cricket. The AIFF in collaboration with FIFA and several other stakeholders are ensuring that the “sleeping giant” is well and truly out of its slumber, and be competing at global level. Although, the country missed out on the opportunity to be on the plane to Russia for 2018 edition of FIFA World Cup, but with the impetus the game is receiving now it is a matter of time, when the Blue Brigade will leading the country to the grandest stage of them all.