Indian football - sleeping giants or in deep slumber?
Is the U-17 FIFA World Cup the only silver lining in an otherwise bleak picture for Indian Football?
Sepp Blatter’s quotable quote “India are sleeping giants of football” six years ago was essentially to please his hosts, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), on his maiden trip to this country.
The FIFA chief somewhat modified his statement on his second visit two years ago to say India was slowly waking up to its potential.
“To wake up a sleeping giant you need more than one alarm clock. We have put different alarm clocks here. And I have to say the giant is not any longer sleeping, it’s already starting to wake up,” sounded more like quip by him than any objective assessment of Indian football.
No serious follower of the sport here would believe these customary compliments of a visitor because the giant is far from waking up. If anything, the country’s football is in deep slumber.
A cursory look at the performance of the Indian team internationally will clearly show no signs of arresting its downhill slide. The same experts list a whole lot of reasons for the decline.
Poor performances, the lack of TV viewership and dwindling crowd response are usually cited as major reasons for the plunge.
To prove the point one has to take the statistical help. In 1993, India were ranked 100 in the FIFA rankings. Within a year, they broke into the top 100 by reaching 96 and by 1996 they were celebrating their best ranking of 94.
Then the sub-continental giants went hurtling down to 134 and there was no stopping the slump. They are currently at 145, pulling back from an abysmal 169 in a roster of 209 countries.
Even in these dismal years there was a spark when one of India’s most successful coaches, Bob Houghton, took India to win the Nehru Cup a year after he came here in 2006. And his crowning glory came in 2009 when the national team won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 to qualify for the 2010 Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years.
A major factor in India’s free fall was its inability to utlise all the FIFA dates for friendlies owing to paucity of funds.
India thus remained regional bullies for quite some time till teams like Bangladesh and Maldives started challenging them in South Asian football, though they won the SAFF championship six times till they were beaten by war-torn Afghanistan last year.
Here a line from Blatter’s confession that the world body is looking at India as a rising world economy.
The experiments to make the sport popular and professionalise continue. The latest is the highly touted IPL-style quickie, the Indian Super League (ISL) floated by IMG-Reliance.
The ISL might catch the imagination of football fans, but there is something inherently wrong with the whole concept to sustain it for long.
Does anyone really think a two-month tournament can change things and the fortunes of Indian football?
The protagonists turn around and point to the phenomenal success of the IPL. “Look what the IPL has done to Indian cricket,” is the refrain of the optimists.
The point missed here is that AIFF is not the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Despite controversies, BCCI is sill the best run sports body in the country. And then the IPL is owned by the BCCI whereas the ISL is the property of a corporate house.
Indian cricket is today so attractive that all overseas cricketers are looking at it as the golden goose; some players are even willing to pull out of their national duty to play in the IPL.
Now, to say that the ISL would be another IPL is funny. Nor is India a powerhouse in Asia, let alone the world.
So who are we left with then? These are players who have either finished their footballing careers and are looking for a few post-retirement benefits.
With ISL around, what will be the fate of the I-League, Indian football’s flagship tournament? There are already signs of strain with the lack of big-time sponsors, limited television audiences and falling stadium attendence.
In 2012, two big cities – Kolkata and Mumbai – and one state – Goa – each had four clubs in the I-League. That’s 12 out of a total of 14 clubs in the top flight, which doesn’t help give a national feel to the league.
This year, 13 teams competed in the I-League. Barring champions Bengaluru FC, the other 12 were from Kolkata and Shillong, as also Maharashtra and Goa, a slight improvement.
According to the 2012 viewership data compiled by TAM and CS 4+, the ratings of the Indian Hockey Federation’s World Series Hockey (WSH), now defunct, were a whopping 400 percent higher than the eyeballs the I-League could catch.
Probably, the only good news for Indian football Blatter promised and perhaps lobbied is to make sure the country won the rights to host the U-17 FIFA World Cup in 2017. Many would be waiting with bated breath on how we fare this time.