India as a footballing nation: a modern rebirth
There is something about the World Cup, it doesn’t matter what sport or who is playing. It is a special feeling to feel involved in anything where at the end you hear someone became World Champion. But the winners aside, the World Cup can be a make and yes break – just ask the Brazilian football team – moment for a sport in the country.
The recent U-17 World Cup in India could be a catalyst or a missed opportunity, depending on how we approach the game in the next few years. South Africa was in a similar situation in 2010, a country on the way up; along with us, a part of the BRICS brethren; and most importantly a World Cup for Africa. Post-2010, the country’s own fortunes aside, the country's footballing fortunes haven’t really moved forward from 2010.
But deep down, you get the feeling that India’s football story is already following a different script.
To be sure, the World Cup wasn’t a huge success from a results point of view, but ask yourself this: when was the last time India lost a few matches, but the overwhelming feeling was one of optimism?
When Jeakson Singh rose highest to head home, the country was awash with the sort of unbridled joy that, in recent memory, came courtesy of the nation’s favourite pastime or the Olympics.
In the post-match news-storm, it was wonderful to read a story where it was stated that Jeakson’s mother wanted him to be an IAS officer, but young Jeakson was adamant about what he wanted to do.
And isn’t that a new India, an India where our youth – constituting the largest such population on the planet – are more comfortable with testing the waters, doing what their hearts tell them?
What many of today’s generation won't recall are the names Chuni Goswami, Nevil D’Souza, and Peter Thangaraj, and with reason. This generation has never known an Indian footballing team of serious pedigree but right now, India’s footballing scene is undergoing a renaissance. In my opinion, one large contributor has been the exposure to high-quality football on a week-by-week basis thanks to the very many European Leagues accessible at the click of a button, but two other factors are very much homemade.
The success of the ISL has shown to one-and-all that football can work in the professional league structure common to most of the best footballing nations, whilst the other factor has been the continued growth and excellence of Bengaluru FC, showing to brands and fans alike how exactly a footballing brand should be approached, where a city is galvanized to get behind their club.
But does investing in football really make sense? First, what brands will be taking into account are the viewers and in this regard, the numbers are very encouraging.
Viewers have also taken their appetite for the ISL to the next level. According to BARC, the 2016 final in Kochi was viewed by 41% more viewers than in 2015, whilst overall viewership of ISL Season 3 went up as well, with 216 million tuning in, when compared to 2017 million in 2015. But most heart-warming of all has been the viewership spikes in rural India where there was a cumulative figure of 101 million.
Brands have seen the light and this has reflected in the title sponsor itself with Hero MotoCorp signing on for the next three years for 160 crores, up from around 51 crores they’d signed on for the first three seasons. With the league’s top-down approach, and with team’s mandated to commit to grassroots, the biggest gain from the ISL’s success will probably be a fledgling grass-roots setup in India, providing a pool for the future Jeakson Singh’s of the world.
At a global level, these developments have not gone unnoticed. Acknowledging the humongous potential for growth for the sport in the country, football powerhouses like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester United have all looked for a slice of the pie, leading to a steady rise of brand engagements and grassroots programs via academies.
These are promising signs, but we need to continue to ride this momentum and build a team that can begin making inroads into continental tournaments. More often than not AIFF officials, coaches, players, are asked about Indian participating in the World Cup and that puts them in a tough spot.
What we should instead push for is for India to become a part of the continental elite, regularly competing with the best clubs and players from powerhouses like Korea, Iran, and Japan. Seeing an Indian club playing in the Asian Champions League and an Indian being a part of the Asia Cup should be among the targets to focus on.
The road ahead for football is a bright one, and the U-17 World Cup can be the threshold for future generations to look at and aspire to reach even higher. For a country of one billion strong, our absence in the global football arena has gone on for too long. No longer! It is time for India to become a football nation.
The author is Sanjeev Anand, Country Head, Commercial Banking and in charge of Sports Vertical, IndusInd Bank