Why does a country of a billion people with a red hot economy fail to produce a football side which qualifies for the World Cup?
As another edition of the world’s greatest sporting event picks up pace, Indian football fans indulge in a familiar ritual of proxy worship. They slip into Argentina and Brazil – their two favourite teams – tee shirts and drape themselves in their flags, paint their icons on walls, and celebrate raucously when their favourite foreign team wins.
India’s ranking in world football is a miserable 133. To put this into perspective, Burkina Faso, Benin, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Haiti and Fiji rank higher.
India can take solace in some backbencher consolation that others in its neighbourhood are doing worse: Bangladesh (157), Sri Lanka (159), Nepal (161), Pakistan (165) and Bhutan (196). This is truly the bottom heap of the 202 football playing nations in the world.
It wasn’t always like this.
Playing barefoot with reasonable ball skills, India actually qualified for the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 – the only time it has done so. But lack of foreign exchange, the prospects of a long sea journey and an insistence on playing barefoot meant that the team never made it to Brazil.
India even picked up the gold in football in the first Asian Games in 1951, beating a suitably booted Iran by a solitary goal. In 1956, after having put on its boots, India reached the semi-final in Olympics football, the first Asian country to do so. It stood fourth in the tournament. In 1962, India again picked up the football gold in the Asian Games.
Thereafter it was all downhill. India never qualified for the Olympics after 1960. It picked up a bronze in the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok, described by commentators as “the swan song of Indian football”.
So why can’t a country where a third of its population is under 14 years of age – a nursery of potential footballers – with a long history of club football can’t put together 11 young men who can kick ball and take it to the World Cup?
There was never a lack of football fans in the country. When I was growing up in Calcutta, the local football league matches played out on rough grounds with rickety stands were packed to the brim. There were football magazines and fan clubs aplenty. Only when World Cup football began beaming live on TV in the mid-1980s we discovered that the gods we had worshipped locally were made of clay.
Regular football leagues take place in at least eight states, but club football in India is pseudo-professional with a strong degree of amateurism.
Also, football, like most things in India, is run by politicians, who have wrested control of most sports – the chief of the football federation now is the federal aviation minister. Lack of professionalism, cronyism, indifference and politicisation is not letting the game thrive, so fans have deserted it to root for their international heroes. Sponsors are indifferent because the quality of the game is appalling.
In retrospect, it would appear that India was never serious about football the way it was about cricket. The All India Football Federation, which runs the game in India, was formed in 1937, but took more than a decade to get affiliated with FIFA, the world’s apex football body. India insisted on playing barefoot when other nations were putting their boots on and the game was changing fast.
There have been occasional bursts of hope followed by darkness again. India’s only football icon of sorts is a not-so-young player called Baichung Bhutia from the small north-eastern state of Sikkim. He was the first Indian player to sign up with an European Club and had an indifferent three-year stint in the third tier of the English league. Bhutia brought some glamour and respect back to the game in India, but what can one player do? Half a dozen foreign coaches have been hired over the years to whip the national side into a competitive outfit, but nothing much has happened.
So, India, sadly, remains an enthusiastic spectator without a team at the World Cup. As my friend and writer, Indrajit Hazra, quips: “We don’t have to paint like Leonardo to appreciate the Mona Lisa. With World Cup football, too, we have mastered outsourcing our entertainment.”