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  • Aman Choudhary

Indian Football: Alive or Dead?

Recently India defeated Bangladesh in the joint FIFA World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers on June 7, 2021, at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Doha. Talisman Sunil Chhetri struck twice in the second half to hand India its first win. It turned out that this was one of India’s worst World Cup qualifiers in years. Although India was already out of contention for a berth in the World Cup next year but remained in the reckoning for a place in the 2023 Asian Cup. This win in the ‘World Cup qualifiers’ came after six years. Of course, it was a great moment for us Indians but it also shifted our focus on the word ‘6-years’. Six long years!!! Why can’t a country of roughly 1.39 billion people which is the 2nd most populous country in the world, produce a good strength of football players? This is the same country that won the 1962 Asian games and was once known as the “Brazilians of Asia.” But how did India, once a Golden team which dominated the Asian football scenario, transformed into a team which is now struggling to even register a single win at the qualifiers? How and why did this happen? Let us take a look at all the aspects related to Indian football’s history as well as its shortcomings.

The bitter-sweet journey of Indian football

The roots of football in India are traced back to the mid-19th century when it was introduced by the British soldiers in the army, probably to unify it. It was due to the efforts of Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari (a Bengali movie ‘Golondaaj’ is all set to be released this year based on Nagendra’s life with Dev as the lead actor), known as the Father of Indian football, and a teenager at that time due to whose efforts football spread in India. Soon clubs were established, among which Calcutta FC was the first in 1872 and others like Mohun Bagan, Dalhousie Club, RB Ferguson, and Sovabazar came into existence. Gradually, Calcutta became the hub of football in India. The Indian Football Association was also formed in 1893 and several tournaments cropped up. Gladstone Cup, Trades Cup, and Cooch Behar Cup were among the first tournaments that cropped up. The Durand Cup and IFA Shield were started in the late nineteenth century. The first major success was perceived by Mohun Bagan in 1911 as it won the IFA shield, becoming one of the first Indian teams to win a major national football tournament. These club tournaments gave impetus to the formation of the Indian national team (with Indian origin players) and the national team started touring various other Asian nations like Japan, Indonesia, and Australia for international friendly matches in the 1930s. Not only this but other national teams like that of China also started touring India too around this time. As a direct result of the success of the Indian national team and the Indian clubs, the AIFF (All India Football Federation) was formed in 1937. The phase of 1930-1950 was indeed remarkable in the development of football in India. The London Olympics in 1948 was India's first main global event, where by and large a discalced Indian team participated. The crowd greeted as well as appreciated them for their sporting spirit. After that, India also got an opportunity to play in the 1950 FIFA World Cup when some other nations took their names back and India qualified automatically. But India wasn’t able to play at the WC due to various onerous and pecuniary reasons, which haunts us to date. After that, the Indian side never performed well at the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup. After the 1950 WC spectacle, India won the Gold at the 1951 Asian games defeating Iran in the final. From this moment, the so-called ‘Golden Age' of Indian football started (the Golden Age is regarded to be from 1950-1962). After the triumph at the Asian games, the Indian team didn’t perform well at the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki but left its mark at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics by finishing at the 4th position. It was after this tournament that India gained some limelight on the world stage. In 1962, India again won the gold in football at the Asian Games. India even made its mark in various tournaments like the Merdeka Cup and Quadrangular tournament and Indian clubs also performed well in their respective tours and tournaments. The National team won innumerable titles in this era under the guidance of Syed Abdul Rahim, who was the national coach. But after his death in the mid-1960s, the Indian team started to lag a bit in its form. After the summer games at Rome in 1960, India never qualified for the Olympics and also performed direly at the Asiad. Despite the poor performance of the national side, the Indian clubs were still on the track and won back-to-back IFA shields defeating foreign clubs in the 1970s. 1977 was indeed a special year in Indian football history as the legendary Pele or ‘O Rei do Futebol’ (The King of Football), as he was exquisitely known, came to India for an exhibition match for his club New York Cosmos with Mohun Bagan. It ended in a draw at the Eden Gardens stadium in Kolkata. After living through the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, Indian football went through a sterile stage in the 80s and 90s and gradually lost its bridgehead among the top Asian teams. Although, the only positive outcomes were that the Nehru Cup was started by AIFF in 1982. It was a tournament in which international teams from all over the world participated. The National Football League (NFL) was also started in 1996 and continues to date, as the I-League. The Indian side also dominated the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship from 1984.

After the 1990s, frequent ups and downs were seen in the Indian football world. After 2000, India won the silver medal at the Afro-Asian games but lost all other major tournaments including the SAFF championship, LG cup, World Cup qualifiers, and also the Asian cup qualifiers. India again experienced a little revival after winning back-to-back Nehru Cups in 2007 and 2008, for the first time in its history. It also won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and also qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Indian club, Dempo also made history in the 2008 AFC Cup by reaching the semi-finals and East Bengal FC also won the ASEAN Club Championship in 2003.

In 2011, India crashed out of the Asian Cup in the group stages after losing all the matches. The team performed well at the 2012 AFC Challenge qualifiers but again were knocked out in the world cup qualifiers. They also experienced poor results in the Caribbean tour. Later in 2013, to revive the club football, ISL (Indian Super League) - a brand new league was started with 8 teams participating. It expanded to encapsulate 10 teams later on. Mohun Bagan, in 2016, qualified for the 2nd round of AFC Champions League qualifiers and became the first-ever Indian club to do so. India also hosted the FIFA under-17 World Cup in 2017 and would also host the FIFA U-17 Women’s World cup in 2022. Although it wasn’t able to get through the group stage, this was the first time India participated in the finals of a FIFA-organised world tournament. Indian U-20 side also defeated Argentina U-20 in 2018 at the Cotif Cup. Looks like India has a much brighter future in football.

Women’s football underwent somewhat similar experiences to their male fellows. They started playing in the ’70s. Various popular clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal started women’s clubs around 2000. Local leagues also took off. The women’s national team performed quite well at the AFC Women’s Asian cup editions around the 1980s. Many Indian players got recognition on the Asian and world stage. But despite these good performances, the women’s team was pegged back after the ’90s. Complaints started arising against the AIFF for the poor treatment of women’s football concerning that of the men. The below-par assistance by the AIFF towards the national team became quite perceptible and the coverage was confined to the state and local level. One of the barriers to the sport growing was and still is, that many women experienced prejudice for playing the sport. The poor performances and crushing defeats further added to the problems leading to the deterioration of women’s football. Although little efforts in recent times by the concerned government bodies has led to little recognition of the sport among girls but it is well perceptible that women's football has not had the analogous edge in the sport that the men's game has had, and also has not become as pervasive in the country as its male counterpart.

Indian football journey was an alloyed one, experiencing ups and downs apart from the golden uproar in the starting. But what all led to these ups and downs? How did a country which was counted amongst the football powerhouses in Asia got derailed and experienced a big downfall? There were and still are various problems that led to its deterioration.

Reasons why football got undermined in India

Despite being the most favored sport in the world, football was hardly cared about in India after the ’60s and ’70s. The question that interests an ordinary Indian - why is football undermined in India and not so popular? What went wrong with the sport after such a bright start in the early years? How did football manage to seduce the entire world but not India? Is it the fault of the sports bodies or just the preference of the population? Many sport pundits and journalists have come up with their own research to decipher the possible causes. There are various reasons as to why football in India got pegged back after the 1960’s Golden era. Let’s take a look at the main reasons that limited the popularity and spread of football in India.

  • The wave of Cricket: One of the main reasons football has been neglected in India is the unparalleled popularity of cricket in the country. India is a country that ingests, drowse, and lives cricket. Cricket is considered somewhat a religion and cricket players are considered as gods. From the moment India began to practice cricket, cricket established an emotional connection with us Indians. This connection rapidly expanded after India won the World Cup in 1983 and a ‘cricket wave’ swept over the country. That created a sensation and made us Indians pick up bats and balls to play cricket. Football has failed to establish such emotional connections in India, and the lack of understanding of the rules and regulations of the sport further makes it problematic for our people to establish a rudimentary connection. When cricket matches are played internationally between two or more countries, it is a matter of national pride. But this isn’t the case with football in our country. Due to the low frequency of international matches between nations and club football being in a dominant position, it makes it difficult for people to pay attention to the sport.

  • Constant failure of the Indian national football team: Over the years, the Indian cricket team has achieved considerable success and is one of the best in the industry, having won the World Cup twice (1983 and 2011). It is in stark contrast to the achievements of Indian football. On the other hand, the last time the Indian football team achieved great success was in the 1962 Asian Games, where they won the gold medal. In contrast, these stories are completely side by side. Cricket in India was a path to glory and fortune encompassing the hall of fame, but parallel to this, sports like football had a different tale to tell. In sports, popularity is usually directly proportional to the amount of success achieved. This is the reason why clubs like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have a huge following on all of the continents. It is undeniable that the Indian soccer team failed to attract the interest of the multitude because it continued to fail over time. The quality of Indian football is substandard, further excluding the masses. Since 2015–17, India have not won any major titles but only won 3 trophies which includes friendly tournaments like Intercontinental Cup and SAFF cup. As a country, the public has high expectations that India will be able to participate in the World Cup. However, due to the low quality of soccer and the lack of outstanding performance in international competitions, ordinary Indians pay little attention to the Indian team.

  • Lack of funding and poor infrastructure: The quality of Indian football, as discussed earlier, is substandard, further excluding the masses to follow it. Lack of funds and poor infrastructure has not helped the cause either. Compared to the BCCI and BAI (Badminton Association of India), the government and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) not only failed to improve the standard of the sport but also failed to nurture the capabilities of potential emerging players in different states in the recent years. The main reason that cricket and badminton are more popular is that the government, sports committees and associations, and other private organizations spend huge sums of money to provide world-class infrastructure and related facilities to these sports. Lack of funds is the main problem in football. This sport lacks funding, but people are not prepared to fund or sponsor the Indian team because of the poor quality of their game. The lack of media coverage is another problem related to the unpopularity of football in India. Just like in the case of a game of the Indian cricket team, it will be broadcasted on many TV channels, but if the game of the Indian football team is played, it will barely be broadcasted on one TV channel or none of the TV channels. Due to this less media coverage in India, cricket is the favorite of the masses. In cricket, the players are given higher salary contracts to play for their respective teams and franchises which is a stimulus for the players while the soccer players are given lesser salaried contracts to play due to which people are not interested to pursue football as their career. But it is difficult to regard the lack of infrastructure as the only reason for the lack of football culture. The lack of suitable opportunities has also increased the problem of the diffusion of Indian football.

  • Limited regional spread: Although this beautiful sport is most popular in the world, except it’s following in the states of West Bengal, Goa, Kerala, and the Northeast, it is almost unpopular in India. It is not that popular in the northern Hindi heartland. This regional difference can easily be seen in the Indian team as most of the players come from the aforementioned regions. There are Fernandes and Borges, Thapa, Gurung, and Bose, but no Aggrawal or Sharma or Kohli. Although games like East Bengal vs. Mohun Bagan are very popular in the Bengal region, they have failed to attract the national audience. The reason is that the quality of football is poor and people are not able to relate themselves with the essence of the "Bangal and Ghoti divide" of the competition. Only Bengalis can understand this rivalry, while the public prefers the talent and excellent derby of the El Classico or Derby d’Italia, or even the Manchester derby. Due to the culture and tradition, this beautiful sport is limited only to these certain areas, such as Kerala, Kolkata, Goa, and northeastern India, which further restricts the development of football in the whole country.

In addition to the reasons listed, there are many other reasons why football failed to become the country's premier sport and wasn’t able to regain the reputation it had in the 1960s. The only way to put the sport on the track is for all stakeholders to understand the importance and by contributing to the reconstruction of football. Through the efforts of all of them, football can regain its prominence and be tied with other sports across the country.

However, with the above points in mind, our attention should also be diverted towards the arrival of various reformed football leagues and the introduction of ISL tournaments in almost all major sports cities in India, the popularity gap between sports is narrowing. Second division leagues are also running in parallel. With the launch of football leagues such as the Indian Super League (ISL), which not only attracts a large number of corporate funds but also leads to a significant improvement in infrastructure, we can hope for the best. Strict measures must be taken at the grassroots level to promote world-class academies and encourage more and more children to take football as a career. Today, the country’s youth are increasingly exposed to football and are building a positive awareness. Many football organizations and clubs have opened their youth academies and are trying to attract the younger generation to join the sport. Women’s football has also started to gain some recognition nowadays and it is one of the important aspects where everyone has to look and also dispense similar support as they do for men’s sport.

It feels dejected when Sunil Chhetri, one of the greatest footballers that India has ever produced, had to come forward to make an impassioned public plea before all the people of the country.

"Abuse us, criticize us but please come to watch the Indian national team play", appealed the skipper.

We should never let this kind of thing happen to any sport in the future. Even though I feel that each sport shall remain as better as the other, but the gap cannot be removed altogether. However, the gap can be reduced and would be reduced to the barest minimum within the near future by our support.

Click here to read the Probe August edition 2021

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