Sportolysis hardly needs an introduction. One of India's best sports blogs, it covers a wide spectrum of sports and sport-related issues. For a single-person effort, it is surprisingly regular and consistently good.
As part of the Visitors series, Pratyush has invited me to write for Sportolysis -- a piece on the state of Indian football. Please to read, dear reader, and share your opinions / insights on the same.
Update (Feb 03, 2009)
I see that the Sportolysis website is no longer in operation. So I have decided to post the piece here.
What gives the game of football its universal appeal? The answer is simple: it is the game of the masses. That is precisely why "the beautiful game" is so popular everywhere. In that case, why isn't it popular in India? Of course, it is popular. Why else would anyone want to watch games in the middle of the night? But what of Indian football? Without resorting to any other means, answer one simple question. Who captains the Indian football team? Baichung Bhutia, you say? Sure of the answer? Well that underscores why Indian football isn't taken seriously by many, though football per se is rising in popularity amongst the youth of this country. And yet, this was the country which qualified to play in the 1950 World Cup finals. Of course, it's another story that we didn't travel because the football team insisted on playing barefoot. It might also surprise many to know that some of the country football clubs are older than most popular football clubs in Europe, including Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan. So what ails Indian football? Is it politics, lack of money, lack of interest or are we simply condemned to support Brazil, Italy, England and the like? To understand the situation better, I spoke to a few officials in some football associations. People in such positions will hardly concede that it is internal politics which stalls the development of the game. Lack of money is the reason everyone cites. Lack of money for what? Officials argue at the national level, domestic football is more popular than domestic cricket. There is a lot more money on offer too. But football associations do not command the same amount of resources as does the BCCI. One of the major expenses is in conducting national-level competitions. This entails a lot of spending; but everyone claims that competitions are the only way to popularise the sport. Most of what remains (which is itself very little) is spent on infrastructure development. However this does not seem to produce tangible results. For one, the game is concentrated in three states - Kerala, West Bengal and Goa. Only two other popular teams -- JCT Mills and Mahindra United -- from other states. One coach I spoke to was very critical of the training programmes for coaches themselves. "You spot a talent. He is five. What do you see him as when he is twenty-five? Coaches should be able to think like that. And that kind of thinking doesn't appear magically in a coach. Even we need training." This has created a vicious circle in Indian football, stunting both the quality and quantity of our footballers. Another vicious circle is caused by the lack of money to get quality players from Europe, Africa or South America. We see often that some players from the big leagues opt to play in the Middle East and America once they are past their prime. They still have a couple of years left in them, and these leagues aren't played at such a high keel. But clubs in the Middle East offer attractive packages to such players. Indian clubs simply cannot match it. Another official was more forthcoming: "We are at least ten years away from such a situation. Unless our football matches up to the standards of the rest of Asia, we cannot attract star players. Look at China. They are able to get a player like Carsten Jancker (who has signed up to play for Shanghai Shenhua). To see someone like him play... he is going to be a big draw!" But big-name players are not just about getting more people to watch the games. A whole team can learn from the experiences of such a player. It is almost like having another coach. And that is going to spur an entire bunch of youngsters to aim higher. So when did the decline start and how? And why can we not make it to the World Cup finals when virtually unknown sides from Africa are facing much more success? The answer is is unison: "For the past three decades, we have done little to improve the game. Other Asian countries who latched on to it are reaping the rewards today." The comparison with Africa is contested. "African football is driven by two distinct advantages. Firstly, football is viewed as the only way out of poverty. So kids take it up a lot more seriously. In India, there is always another game. Also, our youth take education seriously from the high school level, so they sacrifice sport. Secondly, Africa benefits from its proximity to Europe. Most of their well-known players -- Eto'o and Drogba, for example -- play in the most competitive of leagues." So what is the way out? The money has started pouring in, but it requires judicious usage. I could glean a wish list of three items from the people I met up with. 1. Infrastructure development; 2. a much improved training system for coaches and 3. formal academy system at clubs, which can spot talent across the country. Though academies are being regarded with growing scepticism in Europe, football officials in India think that it is the system best suited for a country like ours. Good coaches are the best way to retain young talents, so clubs should go the extra mile to get them. And finally, young people should be made aware that they can make football as a career - that there is enough money in it, and that the various organizations are really committed to improving the game. It is the stated objective of the President of the All India Football Federation, Mr Priyaranjan Das Munshi, that India will be represented in the 2010 World Cup finals. That does not sound convincing, but if the AIFF and the other bodies really work towards improving the game in India, we can all look forward to a thriving and popular sport -- the game of the masses, in addition to "the gentleman's game". P.S.: In case you are still not sure, Baichung Bhutia IS the captain of the Indian football team!
Tags: Indian football