In India, a country obsessed with cricket, the rise of football has not gone unnoticed. The jerseys of Rooneys, Drogbas and Persies are no more a rare sight. Although you can never tell whether they are because of their love for the team and its players or just for fashion, the point is people are getting to know about football and it is no more just about teams like Brazil and Argentina and individuals such as Pele and Maradona.
But still in terms of reach, this sport has not gained access to the life of the normal Indian household. I am amazed to see this. Football, the world’s beautiful game, is still looking for a strong foothold in India, apart from places like Bengal and Goa where it is followed like maniacs due to its history and cities like New Delhi and Bangalore, where people are aware of the teams. The small towns of India are still to get to grips with it.
Whenever I sit down to watch football, I sometimes wonder what makes cricket more interesting than this game. A true team sport – this most watched sport over the globe has not gone beyond cricket in India in terms of popularity. Off the context, I am not a cricket critic and I know that I am a better cricketer than a footballer and throughout my life, I have played more cricket than football but bizarrely, I believe I can analyse and write about football better than cricket.
Football is not cluttered like cricket – a game with different formats of different durations and different players for different formats. Since its advent, this game has been played for 90 minutes between 22 men, fighting for the ball, waiting to hit that kick that will take them to levels of ecstasy compared to none. Each player gets to see the ball for 4-5 minutes on an average per game, the rest of the time they run around and still, with just one kick, they become a hero, a legend, a name that will never be erased from the memory of the fans and the coming generations. When you succeed in football, you become a name for generations to remember and worship. In cricket, the legends are not as influential (unless you are Sachin Tendulkar).
Those sublime one-touch passes that split defences leave you awe-struck, those delightful direct balls that sail over helpless defenders and right at the feet of the striker and the disturbing of the netting behind the man with the gloves. To top it all, the roar of thousands behind you for 90 minutes throughout, the display of emotions and those unorthodox and trademark celebrations – all are a part of the game. You can change the game and your life with just one touch in the match. The rush of blood for a second clubbed with sheer talent can outsmart the strategies and plans made in the dressing room for hours before the match. An 18 year old can give a seasoned 100 time capped player the blushes with a class display of footballing intelligence he possesses.
This is a game which has maximum scope in terms of creativity and innovation. You can never say this game a typecast. In cricket, chances for innovation are few, now that game has grown. In creativity, it has almost reached a saturation point and may be that is why, innovation in the formats is being brought to make them game interesting.
This is a sport where not only do the scorers matter but those who toil in front of their goal defending the ball are also appreciated. Those hard tackles that bring the opponent to the ground, kissing the lush green grass: nothing satiates a defender more. He derives pleasures in kicking the ball from right under the nose of striker. The slides on the watery outfield in a rainy London night to block the wet, heavy ball, taking blows on body and head throughout and still standing rock solid with the same aggression in every tackle without shivering the least bit – this is what a footballer is made of. Cricketers do not get involved physically. There are no clashes of body and the aggression level is far below. A true gentleman game, isn’t it?
Then there are midfielders who are the most celebrated part of the game. The vision to create goals and assist scorers makes them stand apart. They score, attack and defend and yet are calm about the game. They gather energy and motivation from their passes being converted into prolific goals and are the creative backbone of the team. And then there are the strikers, who have an eye for goal every single time. Passing and dribbling through a crowd of defenders and curling the ball beyond the goalie in the far corner: this is what they play for. Sometimes, the yell of the fans indicates the ball going in before it actually crosses the white line. The cunning dip and sweet curl, and then running to the fans instead of the team-mate who passed you the ball. Nothing makes the adrenaline in a fan’s body run faster. He locks eyes with those who matter to the club the most and screams, screams his heart out, beats his chest and kisses the badge on his shirt. In cricket, this never happens. You rarely celebrate with fans, with those you play for.
And the best part about this game is the uncertainty. Even teams which start as clear favorites and are expected to win by good goal margin could be handed an embarrassing defeat. You do not play this game with reputation and past results; it is about the confidence on that day. The form and display decided the game and not the head-to-head record in previous 10 meetings. In cricket, in a match against a solid and weak team; you know the result, the audience knows the result and the stands are empty. Upsets in cricket take place once in a blue moon.
To quote one of those few men in football world whom I adore and respect, Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club, “The game of football is like a beautiful woman. You have to keep telling her she is beautiful or she forgets it.”
I couldn’t agree more. This game is meant to be played in a beautiful way, where you do not dive to earn a foul or penalty. You are a footballer, you have to stand strong. Divers can go and dive on the road side, or in pools. The pitch is about the talent you exhibit to repay a fan’s faith in you. Those people who invade your ground week by week are to be obliged by playing the game that they love to see. A good game is what everybody wants: when creativity is unleashed and those moments of spark are the order of the day, when passing of the ball is a treat to watch, when a blistering shot kisses the back of the net, when hard but sensible challenges are made to win the ball; when the game is played in the spirit of the game.
It is disheartening to see Indian football way behind in comparison with peers around the world. What’s more disheartening is that not enough is being done to ensure that the game gets what it deserves. For a population of more than 1.25 billion in this amazing land, watching and playing sports is just not about cricket where you can play close to 400 international matches as are still never remembered for your contribution (like Ajit Agarkar). Agreed, I am no one to compare these two games. Each has their separate merits but it does not matter how hard I try. Cricket can never outscore football in for me.
India, you need to move past cricket. Indulge yourself in this game and in a very short time, you will be able to feel for it. As for cricket, I am sorry mate. It does not matter how popular you become in certain parts of the world. You can never be as beautiful as the game of football.