Is India paying the penalty for its love for cricket or are there other reasons it can’t make it to the World Cup?
7/17/2018 11:41:50 PM
|written By : Sidhartha Tsering Bhalla|
Four years since the glorious victory of Germany we are once again watching the world’s top footballing nations battle it out for the ultimate glory in the Beautiful Game – the FIFA World Cup.
By the time you read this, several of Asia’s, Europe’s and Africa’s nations will have fallen out of the group stages. Hailing from a tiny country like Singapore, it was especially gratifying to see a small country like Iceland (pop. 330,000) battle it out to a draw with Argentina. It had echoes of the football prowess of my mother’s home state of Sikkim in Northeast India which, despite a population of just over half a million, has produced many of India’s top footballers including former India captain and the country’s first international player Bhaichung Bhutia.
Thanks to a remarkable scheme envisioned by Sikkim’s Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, a search for more Bhaichungs was launched and Sikkim now boasts national players like Sanju Pradhan, Nirmal Chhetri, Robin Gurung and Uttam Rai.
But while Sikkim, like Iceland, has been punching far above its weight in Indian football, it cannot provide a magic solution for the country which comes in at only 97th in international rankings – a shame for a country of almost 1.3 billion people.
Is India’s love for cricket responsible for the poor state of affairs of football in the country? Is the nation not physically fit to play this game of stamina? Is Indian society still so feudal that it cannot promote an egalitarian game like football?
India qualified for the World Cup only once, by default in 1950 when all of its scheduled opponents withdrew. However, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the apex body of football in India, could not send the team to play, missing a historic opportunity.
Since then, India has been struggling to register its presence in the world of football. Several of India’s much smaller and poorer neighbours have bested it at the game. In a cringe-inducing performance that India will no doubt want to forget – the South Asian regional championship in 2014 - Afghanistan easily trounced India.
It is not that Indians do not play football. There are many regions in India where football clubs have been in existence for more than 100 years, Mohun Bagan A.C being Asia’s oldest club, founded in Calcutta in 1889.
India also holds many domestic football championships. Football may become more popular with the establishment of the new Indian Super League (ISL). The idea of this initiative is to make football a viable career option for players and promote the game among the next generation.
But can this commercial venture lead to the creation of a world-class national team in time for the 2022 World Cup? There is scant reason for optimism. While the formation of a national league may allow players to earn more money from the profession of football, this will not necessarily make them world-class players, fit to compete with other nations. For many reasons India will still struggle to defeat small, nondescript nations. While some Indian states such as Kerala, Goa, and West Bengal have been vying with each other to win national championships for decades, this competition has not produced players of international stature.
Compare India’s performance with minnows such as Grenada and Jamaica, which regularly get a medal for every couple of hundred thousand people.
So why isn’t India punching its weight? One reason is undoubtedly money.
India, despite its advanced space programme and rapidly growing population of billionaires, is still a poor nation in terms of per capita income, and sport has never been a priority for the government. To be sustainable India must have a proper system for athlete selection and training from a young age.
There are two other important reasons for India’s sorry performance that go beyond shortage of cash or organisation. Sport is rarely at the top of anyone’s agenda and that includes athletes and their families. It takes a backseat to education and a contact sport like football is seen as too rough.
Social stratification is another major reason. Sociologists like Prof Ronojoy Sen of the National University of Singapore have said that Indians have traditionally seen themselves primarily not as individuals, but as members of their caste, tribe or region. This has meant that different castes or social classes tended not to play sport together. Since the lower castes constitute the bulk of India’s population, and these lower castes are also the ones who don’t have access to education or access to good nutrition and health, Prof Sen says: “That has meant that a large part of India’s population hasn’t been able to take part in sport, and hasn’t had access to sporting facilities.” This shrinks the talent pool considerably. Then there is the lack of a national identity. In football, identity is often discussed in terms of national style. Spain has the “Tiki-taka,” full of short passes and lots of movement. Holland had their famous “Total Football.” Italy featured the “Catenaccio,” with an emphasis on defence. Brazil are the Samba Kings.India had a distinctive football identity from 1956 to 1962.
They were the best in Asia and called the ‘Brazil of Asia’ because they played skilful short-passing football, with focus on body swerves and dribbling. Then it changed, say Indian football experts like Novy Kapadia, because “India surrendered their football identity by bowing to the wishes of every foreign coach.”
Today, India’s football administrators and players, in an effort to try and hide their own failures, have developed the habit of criticising the rise and rise of Indian cricket. The fact is that cricket is played among just 10 nations. India should stop talking about the World Cup and aim to improve in Asia. Also, youth development should be given more than lip-service in Indian football.
As Kapadia says, “Age group football in India is full of fraudulent players masquerading as youngsters. The game has not spread all over the country. It is only played in pockets. Hence, international results are poor.” Instead of a ground-up strategy to improve football in the subcontinent, the focus has seemingly shifted to the glitzy Indian ISL built around ageing global superstars.
Sure, the spectator response has been encouraging, with average attendance of 26,000 at ISL games, and a television audience of some 400 million viewers. It’s also good to see the ISL looking to improve the quality of the game with the likes of David Trezuget, David James and Alessandro Nesta gracing the football fields in India. Mumbai City FC’s grassroots programme includes 50 festivals which is a great way to increase the popularity and hopefully start to generate future stars like retired captain Baichung Bhutia.
So while a slickly produced football tournament isn’t going to do it for India, it’s still done a lot to lift the beautiful game from the subjugation it once suffered under the weight of India’s cricket obsession, when it enjoyed grassroots popularity only in places like Goa, West Bengal and Kerala and the Northeast states.
The eternal truth is that Indian football has to develop from within. No amount of money or talent transfusion will be of any help. African and South American countries can offer very little to young trainees by way of facilities and finance. Yet, how do they manage to produce outstanding talents? That is the burning question for India.