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India: The Sleeping 'Soccer' Giant

TOP CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
Modified 21 Dec 2019, 00:39 IST

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri

A few years ago, taking a stroll in a public park usually involved one permanent fixture - you would be asked to return a hard rubber ball that had been hit your way, several times. Today, that ball could also be a terrifying Size 5 leather one.

Indian football has taken massive steps towards holding a majority stake in the hearts of its citizens, and a host of factors have contributed to its incredible rise.

Among the biggest of these factors has been the brighter prospects of the Indian National team, who in an unprecedented rise to the top managed to jump 77 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) rankings in just over two years. The current leadership of stalwart skipper Sunil Chhetri and the change in management, with Igor Stimac now calling the shots, has led to a transformation in the playing style and the attitude required to succeed in the team. Indian fans are waking up to the reality that the team is on the right trajectory, and may soon be able to compete at a respectable level.

The national team's success could not have been possible without the implementation of several initiatives with the single-minded intention of developing grassroots football in the country – every club is now required to maintain a youth academy that meets certain infrastructure and coaching standards.

This move incentivised young stars to continue playing at the top, and the sudden jump in quality at the youth level led to a greater number of children embracing the game. When the youth of the country gets the tools required to nourish their passion, their technical, physical and mental qualities as footballers get amplified.

The growth of several semi-professional and amateur leagues and tournaments has ensured the retention of players who have passed through the system without much recognition -- a large number who now perform at a level that resonates with their ability. There has been talk of these leagues being televised, increasing the appeal of participation and adding glamour to the equation.

The idea behind these projects possesses the depth required to grow love for the beautiful game: everyone should get a chance to play, regardless of where, when and how. Catalysing these incredible ventures are the artificial turf grounds that have sprung up in equal frequency to coffee chains and fast food stores, all over the country. The excuse of not having a ground to play on is seemingly redundant these days…

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Professionally, the presence of two leagues, namely the ISL and the I-League, have triggered a split opinion among enthusiasts with several different schools of thought.

I firmly believe that the ground reality of having two leagues results in more games to watch and hence more demand for professional players, a major win for the fans.

The recent ruling by the AIFF, outlining a roadmap for the future, a promotion/relegation system and the eventual merger of the two leagues represents a significant step in the right direction for the game.

This confluence of ideas all centred through one common goal: thrusting the beautiful game into the limelight; have helped alter the single most important perception in the Indian sporting ecosystem: that football is not a viable option.

Today, children believe that football can be viewed as a respectable career that will match their financial expectations.

Today parents believe this as well.

Today, the field of sports management attracts the same crowd as the fields of law, engineering and medicine.

Today, Indian football has shed the tag of infancy and is destined to achieve its highest potential.

Today the sleeping giant comes one step closer to an awakening that will shake the world.

Published 06 Dec 2019, 13:57 IST
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