India sits back as one huge football audience

The wizards of football have showcased their magic at the FIFA World Cup and captured the attention of everyone in India, even putting in the shade the cricket team’s successful bid to stop Sri Lanka from scoring a hat-trick of title wins in the Asia Cup. And, as we sit through the nights to watch the action and engage ourselves in discussion in board rooms and drawing rooms alike, one question is inescapable: Why is India not even within dreaming distance of the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, except as a huge audience?

With cable and satellite channels bringing home a fairly high quality of sport from Europe for a good nine months each year, the number of youngsters who become fans of European football is only growing by leaps and bounds. Sadly, this is not converting to youngsters taking to playing the sport and we are fast being reduced to a nation of young couch potatoes who are happy to watch the Ronaldos and the Rooneys, the Kakas and the Messis.

The easiest target to attack for such a plight would be the All India Football Federation for the national team’s inability to cross the first set of hurdles in the qualification race for the FIFA World Cup. Of course, few attempts have been made to keep the Indian team in the collective consciousness of the people. Unlike in Europe where club football dominates, in our market, it is the national team that holds the attention of the fans.

We have seen large turnouts when the Indian side plays the Nehru Gold Cup and precious little energy has been spent on getting the team to feature in more matches at home. There would be many benefits, not the least being the fact that the national players would be on television for more time than they are now. A fair consequence of such frequent appearances at home matches would be that the team and the players would have the chance to gain popularity, if not challenge that of players in European leagues.

The other culprits could be the owners of Indian football teams. They have not kept pace with the times in building themselves or their players as brands. In a market driven economy, they remain rooted in ancient methods of running their teams. Even though India has a professional I-League that is broadcast live on television, no attempt has been made to professionalise the way the teams are run and kept in the public consciousness.

Fans have heard of Sunil Chhetri becoming the first Indian to figure in Major League Soccer in the United States. But schoolgirls are getting hooked to EPL and the like. Man-U and Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid feature in their conversations just as much as the names of Ronaldo, Messi, Drogba and Xabi. The young of today have carried their public displays of affection for football to a different level altogether. And India’s football clubs, state associations and the AIFF are doing precious little to face this challenge.