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Indian Football - Still a "land unexplored"

The Indian national football team

The Indian national football team

For the world, there’s not much to talk about India and her footballing credentials. In fact, the very existence of the game in the peninsula might well be unheard of, among a vast majority of the football following population.

Yet a century ago, football had engraved an ever-lasting mark into the history of Indian nationalism. In 1911, when the cries of “Swaraj” (self-rule) was gathering momentum across the nation, Calcutta based club team Mohun Bagan took to the field against a vastly superior East Yorkshire regiment in the final of the prestigious IFA Shield.

However, with odds staked highly against them, the eleven barefoot men would go on to do the unthinkable; as the Britishers succumbed in front of a 80,000 strong hostile crowd; losing 2-1 to the overwhelming underdogs.

It was a pivotal point in Indian history as for once the nation had found a source of self esteem – a belief that they can outsmart and outdo their rulers in an even playing field. According to a somewhat forgotten urban legend, it is said as the British players scampered away from the city in embarrassment, a Hindu priest among the delighted home crowd, pointed at the Union Jack atop the Fort William and asked “When will that come down?” – to which someone replied – “It’l come down when we win the shield again.”

Incidentally, Mohun Bagan lifted their next IFA Shield in 1947 – the year of India’s independence!

Fast-forward exactly 102 years – and to now say that Indian football has remained more or less static since that fateful day in 1911, would be a rather clever use of euphemism. For almost half a century, the country’s footballing glory was merely confined to a “golden generation” that lasted from the mid-50s to the early 60s – a side that briefly reigned as the kings of Asia and came tantalizingly close to a Olympic medal in 1956.

And when Cricket finally announced its grand arrival into the Indian sporting scene in 1983, as Kapil Dev‘s underdog team lifted the World Cup in the historic ground of Lord’s, the country had already found their new fascination – football by then, was slipping into absolute obscurity!

Currently languishing at the bottom half of the FIFA rankings (155 to be precise), the country has failed to live up to the promise it once made. So, where did we go wrong? And is there perhaps a way of resurrection? Well, a systematic look into the country’s footballing structure could probably give us an insight.

The Internal Structure – The League – The Money
The Kolkata Derby

The Kolkata Derby

With a history of over a century, India’s footballing infrastructure is almost surprisingly somewhere between primitive and non-existent. The national league structure was established sixteen years ago and while a rechristening in the year of 2007 saw the foundation of a professional league – the I-League – raising substantial hope across the country, very little has changed in practicality.

With no concrete planning and identification of revenue streams, the clubs and academies are vastly dependent on donors and benefactors. The state of investments from within the country and abroad is deplorable, especially given the ever-sliding rupee.

In any case, the league has attracted very little eyeballs – with empty stands a frequent feature in league games. This lack of popularity almost in a way puts the final nail in the coffin, when it comes to investments – you really wouldn’t bet on any sort of returns in a scenario such as this.

In fact, so poor has been the infrastructural situation, that early last month, all 14 I-League clubs failed to fulfill the licensing criterion – a mandate given by the Asian Football Federation(AFC) and approved by the All India Football Federation(AIFF).
The cash flow in the AIFF is also understandably not the most the ideal either.

However, in the midst of all this, enters a proposal of a franchise based tournament from the marketing and commercial partners of the AIFF, IMG Reliance – somewhere in the lines of the highly successful and cash rich brainchild of Indian cricket – the Indian Premier League.

The franchise based tournament promises marquee imports from abroad, celebrity owned teams, packed stadiums under floodlight and inter-province rivalry – in short, everything that Indian football craves for right now. The fact that players will actually be “auctioned” has been somewhat judged fascinating among some sectors of the international media – who are not quite accustomed to such a concept in football.

Meanwhile, however, there has been rise of a certain school of thought, especially among the top offices of the I-League clubs, who are not quite sure about the credentials of such a footballing model and are not entirely convinced by the impact it can have on the I-League and Indian football.

The AIFF, seeking an amicable solution, have given a green signal for the tournament, but it’s future might well have not yet been settled.

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