A disclaimer: My aim is not to take down the author of this piece. He has his reasons in support of his argument and I respect them. However, I have a right to counter that argument and that is precisely what I intend to do.
A new generation has taken over India; a footballing generation. In the years past, if there were a Sri Lanka – Pakistan One Day game and the European Championships between Greece and Poland happening in parallel, there would have been more takers for the cricket. That, however, is changing. Pubs are playing more football. The Euros are a huge event. Pretty much every kid wants a Manchester United or an Arsenal jersey as much as he does a Team India one.
Yet, we see that India is nowhere in the FIFA rankings. We hear them winning some obscure cup from time to time beating the likes of Sri Lanka and Nepal. ‘Hogwash!’ and ‘What sort of a stupid tournament is that?’ are the common responses. ‘Anyone can beat these countries. Qualify for the world cup. Then we’ll see.’ We are a nation of cynics, skeptics and hypocrites. No one is an exception.
However, before we get all cynical and skeptical and hypocritical (for we will all be made to look hypocritical when the same people who jeer losses drape the national flag when the team wins), let us take a deep breath. And let us ask this question: Is it fair to slag Indian football off thus? Is it fair to dismiss them in such an off-hand manner and start giving reasons as to why Indian football cannot improve?
I think not. Bear with me while I tell you why or rather, why not.
First, the present. The Indian cricket team is phenomenally successful. The IPL is a cash cow. Some obscure, random, first-class cricketers get one Lakh for a ‘Karbon Kamaal’ catch. Our footballers, in contrast, are paid poorly, not recognized etc. Money is at the heart of cricket. Hence, by induction, Cricket is the root of all evil. Yes? Is that your argument? Fair enough. Now look at the larger picture.
First, look at it historically. If you want to blame anyone really for the under-development of football in India, blame the British. Yes, the British. Eh? Surely, you’ve gone doolally! Perhaps, I have. Just humor me, though. Just spare a thought.
Cricket, football, tennis, badminton, polo – all brought to India by the British. They might have existed in different forms in India previously but not as organized sport. It was the British who truly brought organized sport into India. If you’ve read Ramachandra Guha’s ‘A corner of a foreign field’, you’ll come to appreciate the history of cricket in India; how it was and how it grew. If you haven’t read it, you really should. There he examines not only the sporting factors but also the socio-political factors that governed cricket through that period and how it helped in its spread.
Cricket was simply more accessible. One might well ask how cricket, where obviously more equipment is needed than just a football was more accessible, well, it just was. The British in India did not play football, or at least not nearly as much as cricket. Football was the game of the masses. Cricket was the Gentleman’s game and the lords, viceroys, the commanders and the officers of the British Raj were gentleman. Cricket is what people saw the firangs play and this is what captured their imagination.
Also, football was not an elitist sport. It was played by the lower classes in England and the primary audience was the throngs of working class who flocked for their Saturday afternoon fun in the sun after a long week’s labor. The British ruling classes in India were obviously from the upper classes and hence preferred the more ‘civilized’, if you like, cricket, tennis and polo. The traditional stronghold of Indian football, Goa, was ruled by the Portuguese, who were much more into football because of the vast number of traders who came and went frequently, imbibing their culture into the local culture.
The rest, as they say, is history and well, the results are for all to see. Cricket captured the public imagination and has gone on from strength to strength. We could argue that, had football been given equal status and importance as cricket, we might well be playing at a world cup now. Yes, maybe we could but the fact of the matter is that we aren’t.
Again, to look at why this is, we must look at the Indian psyche. We, as a race, are quite a peaceful people. We enjoy competition and the spirit of the game but are far more reluctant to watch people getting battered and bruised. Innately, we enjoy beauty and elegance rather than brawn. For this reason, cricket and tennis offers more to an Indian than does a football or rugby. Hockey is the notable exception but even that can be made an excuse of because of its elitist status that it held in the times of old. It was more artistry and skill, and still is.
‘The 2010 World cup is the most widely watched football event in India with viewership up by more than 35%’ said a report. Wow! That is interesting, isn’t it? The TRP? 1.2. The TRP of the IPL 3 that was held that year? 7 odd . You get an idea. Yes, football is growing exponentially. There is no doubt about it but we must accept that there is a fair way to go yet. There is no point in bemoaning the lack of success. Apologies for being blunt but, there is a distinct lack of it. Deal with it.
Whether we accept it or not, there is nothing like success to capture the imagination of a nation. I don’t know if people will agree but the 1983 Cricket World Cup win did something for cricket that no amount of advertising or money could do; it brought success. It showed us that we could compete with the world; not just compete but beat the best and be the best. This truly captured the imagination. Cricket has gone on from strength to strength and it is where it is today.
There is this claim that all the money is going to cricket. Well, of course it is. Whose money is that? The corporates. As Goldratt states, ‘the aim of the firm is to make money.’ Sponsors see cricket as a high visibility sport. It is where they get the best bang for their buck. Hence they throng to it. Success brings more sponsors but conversely, money is needed for success. A vicious circle, if there ever were one but one that exists nonetheless. Football needs money to grow but only the growth of football will bring in money.
I do agree that more must be done. There is no other way. More money must be pumped into the system. The quality must be improved. But that aside, what are you really doing about it? I mean, have you ever gone and watched a game in the stadium? When I was living in Pune, the stadium of Pune F.C was on the way from my office to my house. The company I worked for had a tie up with Pune F.C and we got tickets for half the price (the full price, in itself was hardly anything – less than a movie ticket even). And yet, the two years I was there, I did not see one game. Not one. Ashamed? Of course, I am.
Then again, when you think about it rationally, it makes sense. We must support our local clubs as well but look at the situation: You see a Messi, a Rooney, a Ronaldo on the tele. And then you see an I-League match. The dip in quality can be quite disturbing and that essentially is the reason that puts off people. You see empty stadia; you see no atmosphere; you do not see lush green grass; you see long-ball football. You are not inspired to watch. You’ve been spoilt by the beautiful game. You watch two lads fighting tooth and nail for the ball and you think, ‘why can these chaps not play the passing game? Why can they not play a faster and better game?’ Well, the answer is that they are not good enough. Yet. But that does not mean that they never will be.
There is no point in saying that we care about football and not Indian football. There is no point in holding grudges against people for appreciating the European leagues and not the Indian league. Honestly, there is no comparison. People who like to watch good football will watch it and there is nothing wrong with it.
Strides are being made, and will continue to be made. Patience is a virtue. Football is blossoming and will blossom in years to come. We have Indians plying their trade in foreign lands now. We have academies being set up and scouts coming to witness football at the grassroots level. With more exposure to the world class talent on show in the foreign leagues, more youngsters are inclined to take up the sport.
Suddenly, being a striker is fashionable just like being an all-rounder is. Being able to do a step-over is as good as being able to play an elegant flick shot. Indian football is growing. Indian football is slowly but surely coming of age. Let it; and once is has grown, we will know. Until that day comes, wait and watch. No scratch that out. Don’t wait and watch. Do something about it. Anything you can. It is very easy to sit and say that Indian football is bad. Anyone can do that.
I do not preach. I cannot say, ‘be the change you want to see’, and all that. I only say this, encourage if you can. Take an active part in any small way you can. If you can’t, sit silently and stop being cynical. Or if you absolutely must be cynical (for you have a right to be, if you so wish), be so in private; for being cynical in public never helped anyone.
Remember this. Rome was not built in a day.