Football- A game that is played, adored and ardently followed by millions across the globe. A game that is synonymous to religion for many. Despite being the most popular sport in the world, the beautiful game is hardly cared for in India with the exception of the likes of West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the North East states ,where football is equally, if not more popular than cricket. The question, however, intrigues the average Indian football fan: Why football in India is not popular? The reasons have been discussed, debated and criticized over a plethora of times. Many sports journalists have come up with their bit of research to decipher what went ‘WRONG’. How football managed to seduce the entire world but not India?
Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter once called India a sleeping giant, and he was right in saying so. Experts all across the globe agree to the fact that India, with its population of 1.2 Billion, has nothing but underachieved on the global stage. India has never qualified for the FIFA world cup, a fact that continues to shame all Indians alike. Things, though, could have been different. India had qualified by default for the 1950 FIFA World Cup finals as a result of the withdrawal of all of its scheduled opponents. The governing body All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided against going to the World Cup, being unable to understand the importance of the event at that time, a decision that it continues to rue even today. Currently, India ranks 162nd on the Fifa world rankings tied with Guam (Population 1,65,000) and below Maldives (Population 3,40,000).
One of the biggest reasons why football is neglected in India is because of the unmatched popularity of cricket in the country. India is a country that eats, sleeps and lives cricket; where cricket is considered to be a religion, and cricketers gods. The Indian cricket team has enjoyed its fair share of success over the years, and is one of the best in the business having won 2 World Cups (1983 and 2011). On the flipside, the Indian football team last tasted major success in 1962 Asian Games where it won a gold medal. The stories, when compared, are starkly juxtaposed. While the former is a story of rags to riches, the latter just the opposite. In sports, popularity tends to be directly proportional to the amount of success achieved. The reason why clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United have huge fan bases across continents. The Indian football team has failed to attract the interest of the masses because of its constant failure over the course of time, something that cannot be denied. The quality of football played in India is below par, which has further repelled the masses. Lack of funding and poor infrastructure has not helped the cause either. However, the advent of cable television in the mid 90’s led to a renewed interest in the sport with the Indian viewers getting acquainted with the high octane football of foreign leagues like The English Premier League. Current football viewership in India stands at a strong 80 million. While games like East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan are extremely popular regionally, they fail to attract the national audiences. The reasons being the poor quality of football, not being able to relate to the very essence of the rivalry- ‘The Bangal and Ghoti divide’, which only Bengalis can relate to (Bangals are the people who came from Bangladesh after partition and Ghotis are the actual inhabitants of West Bengal) and viewers preferring the flair and the excellence of an El Classico or a Manchester Derby or even a Mersyside Derby. Another reason why cricket is preferred over football in the country is because of the climate. The climatic conditions in India makes it extremely difficult for a sports person to endure 90 minutes of a game like football, which is physically more demanding than most sports. Cricket, on the other hand, does not demand the same level of fitness as football.
With the introduction of football leagues like the Indian Super League (ISL) which has not only attracted significant corporate funding, but also led to considerable improvement in infrastructure, we can only hope for the very best. Drastic measures must be taken at the grassroots level by promoting world class academies and encouraging more and more kids to take up football as a career. Can India produce its own Ronaldos, Messis and Gerrards in the near future? Only time will tell. Till then, all we can do is watch the real Messi and Ronaldo take the field and entertain us with their skills, hoping that maybe someday we will be watching an Indian footballer doing the same and making us proud.