Is football an anathema to the Indians ?
Or do the Indians really love football ?

Samarjit Kambam *

The FIFA World Cup 2018 has already started. The public are going for better and wider LED TVs to enjoy the World Cup presently held at Russia. The TV companies are also slashing their prices to attract more customers.The on-going FIFA Football World Cup is about to reach quarter-way, inching towards more thrilling, sensational, glorious, shocking and breath-taking moments as part of world cup fever.

The world cup is being watched with great fervor by many Indians on TV and other forms of media till the wee hours of morning, just like some sort of a month long carnival and will go on till the grand finale. Talks on the ongoing FIFA World Cup have been going on fervently since months back.One would say, “I stand for German”. Another one would say, “Brazil will emerge as champion”. Someone else would say, “Who will defeat Spain?”.

Many such comments galore,viz “Argentina will shine this time”, “I love Costa Rica”, “I like the techniques of Portuguese players”, “Mexico is the best”, “Host country Russia, though unlikely,may emerge as champion to gain their honour as host country”, Blah, blah, blah…..

Almost two third of the populace of India are glued to the TV or smartphones in the prevailing FIFA World Cup. Each of the viewers has his/her own interest be it the team or the player. Even bettings involving huge amount of money are secretly going on in the virtual as well as in the real world as to which country will become the champion and who will be adorned with the Golden Boot. Course, FIFA World Cup fever struck the Indians decades back. This shows that the Indians truly love football. Unfortunately, India with a 1.4 billion plus population has not been able to qualify for the FIFA World Cupso far except for the U-19 one.

Well, it may sound awkward and jabberwocky but please allow me to bring inthe word ‘love’ for a short while. Love comes in many forms but most love usually ends up in physical relationship. However, there is a kind of love called ‘Platonic love’ wherein no physical intimacy or contact is involved. It is a kind of love where the mind matters more than the body for it is purely spiritual. Same is the case with Indians and Football. The Indians do love football. Definitely true.

It would be terribly unfair to state that Indians don’t love football. The number of football fans in India is overwhelming as can be witnessed from the media and various social media platforms taking into account the ongoing FIFA Football World Cup. As of now FB, Instagram, Twitter and other social networking sites are buzzing with views, opinions uploaded pictures and videos for the ongoing world cup. The shocking reality is that many of the world cup fans in India have hardly touched a football in their entire life starting from the writer himself.

The billion dollar question is “How long will the Indian’s platonic love with football continue?”.I don’t mean to say that nobody in India plays football. There are many in some states of India that not only loves football but plays football with high revelry. West Bengal, Kerala, and Goa may be cited as examples. The north eastern region of India in general also loves and plays football with Manipur, Mizoram and Sikkim in particular.But will India remain charged with FIFA World Cup fever for forever and a day without the ability to participate?

As of now, the possibility of participation of Indian team in the FIFA World cup in the future is as distant as the future itself. Some experts opined that it is the genetic trait, and other factors etc., which have been the sole reason for India’s sluggish performance in football. In history books it has been inscribed that mainland Indians are descendants of Aryans and Dravidians. How about Germans? They are also people of Aryan origin as per historical record. But Germany is a powerhouse when it comes to football.

So, it is totally baseless to conclude that India’s poor performance in football is inter-related with DNA, genetic traits, climate and the likes which are very lame excuses to cover up the dismal scenario of Indian football. Even backward and poor country of Africa such as Nigeria has qualified for the prevailing FIFA world cup. Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Senegalare very hot counties and Siberia is anextremely cold country. Still, these countries are able to qualify and participate in the ongoing FIFA World Cup. So, climate has nothing to do with football.

Right from the beginning Indian football had a wobblyhead start. In the 19th century football was introduced officially by the British in India especially in Bengal where the major Indian football clubs of today were born i.e.MohunBagan in 1889; Mohammedan Sporting in 1891 and East Bengal in 1924. The British took the native Indians just for granted. Out of the blue one Indian team i.e. MohunBagan was allowed to compete against the British team in an annual competition in colonial Calcutta called the IFA Shield.

In 1911, MohunBagan caused a stir by becoming the first Indian club to win it, beating East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final and this victory had a powerful symbolic historical significance during the age of British colonialism. The Indian players during that time had earned a distinctive flavour of playing football barefooted. Maybe wearing a pair of shoes was too alien or too uncomfortable to the Indian players of that era.

After India won independence from the British rule in 1947, India sent a football team to participate in the Summer Olympics in England wherein the players played impressively even though the game was played barefootedly by the Indian team, just missed the Bronze medal by coming fourth, the best-ever finish by an Asian country during that time. With the onset of the Second World War there was no football World Cup since 1938.

The competition however resumed in 1950 with FIFA (Federation of International Football Association) as its controlling body where FIFA offered one of the 16 places in the tournament to an Asian team for the first time. After three other Asian teams turned down the invitation, it was offered to India which was warmly accepted. At a lotto-draw in Rio-de-Janeiro in May 1950, a month before the tournament, India, ball No 6, found itself slotted into Group C with Italy, Sweden and Paraguay.

That was when the board of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) which ran the game in India, decided to pull out the Indian team from the tournament. Legend has it that India backed out because the players wanted to play barefootedwhereas FIFA insisted that they wear shoes while on the other handthere has been talks about FIFA agreeing with the terms of the Indian team playing barefooted but was not deliberately not sent by the AIFF to save the cost of conveyance of the team. If the AIFF during that time had sent the Indian team to play the match, India’s history in the world of football might have taken a different turn.

Since 1983 when India won the World Cup in Cricket held in Australia, India has gradually become a powerhouse in the cricket world. Now, India is the cricket superpower in the world with BCCI as the largest cricketing entity having the biggest monetary resources. Many foreign players take part in IPL as they are paid more in India then their own country. The Indian cricket has grown to lofty heights whereas football in India is like the dark side of the moon, never to be seen for a lifetime. Generations have come and gone by without witnessing India qualifying in the FIFA World Cup Tournament. It may be the same for the present generation too.

Whatever be the predicament, logjam, plight and juvenility of Indian football, all hope is not lost and there is always a silver lining. Digging out the grave of Indian football, it has become known that once upon a timethe Indian national team won the Asian Games gold medal in football in 1951 and 1962.

Thus, realising that India has also the potential to produce world class players and qualify in World Cup in the years to come, the Indian Super League(ISL) which is an IPL type clone for football in India is being floated with promoters such as conglomerate of Reliance Industries and IMG, the global sports management firm. India’s cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar even though a cricket demi-god has also taken a stake in one of the ISL football teams. Such developments sound like music to the ears for football lovers and football enthusiasts in India.

Even though it will take time and lot of hard work, if we can kickstart from now onwards, the future generations may be able to watch India taking part in the World Cup Football. Here again, it may be mentioned that cricket is also a game that demands great technical skills, ability to take decision by a batsman within a fraction of a second, swift reflexes as well as requirement of great endurance and stamina of bowlers.

When India can generate talented cricket players, it would be pre-mature or too blunt to claim that genetic factor and climate plays a role in the dismal scenario of Indian football. The stumbling block is that the AIFF as well as the government of India has been tainted with the mindset that football is not meant for India and that India’s football is a ‘pyrrhic victory’. The All India Football Federation’s dereliction for football for many decades is the main logjam for India’s dismal performance in football.

It needs to enthuse, invigorate, act as a bird-dog and re-activate Indian football till it comes as par with world standard. Time for the AIFF to handpick talented players from a very tender age, train them, give them special attention and induct them in sports schools.The dawn of National Sports University, Manipur is a very welcome development. However, the Indian government also needs to open more sports schools, schools like the Motilal Nehru School of Sports in various parts of the country. Once a firm stronghold has been maintained in Indian football, there will be no shortage of sponsors and standard of Indian football will gradually gain momentum and soar to greater heights.

India can produce world class football players provided special attention is given by the concerned sports authorities because the Indians do have an unbelievable fervor and love for football, a game where the feet capture the heart. A football culture needs to be developed in India just like the way a huge magnitude of cricket culture dominates other sports in India where the Indians eat, sleep and drink cricket. For this a collective effort is needed.

It can start right from every household where the parents can motivate their kids to play football and further climbing the football hierarchal ladder to championships of junior schools, high schools, colleges, university level and various other levels alongwith sincere efforts from relevant sports authorities.

The umpteen mammoth private companies in India also need to shoulder efforts to open high standard football training centreswith exceptionally good coaches for the budding talented players as corporate social responsibility which will act as an impetus for exponential growth of high standard footballing in India.

Now it’s time to do away with the platonic love of Indians with football and start having physical intimacy with it from a very young age as well as to stop viewing Indian football as a corner-store sportby AIFF and concerned sports authorities, otherwise India will never see the light of the day for participating in the FIFA World Cup in the future.

* Samarjit Kambam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at kambamsamarit0(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on June 26, 2018.

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