At the London Olympics in 1948, something happened that even a year earlier would have seemed utterly outlandish, the extravagant daydream of an overly proud Mohun Bagan supporter. The national football team, barely a year after India’s day of independence, were to face off against perennial European powerhouse France in their first Olympic fixture.
And while the pitch may only have been lowly Ilford FC’s Lynn Road ground rather than the hallowed turf of Wembley or Highbury, this historic event took place in England, the home of football. India lost the match 1-2, but Sailen Manna – revered by some as India’s greatest ever footballer – and his teammates could look back on their achievement with pride.
They quickly gained the crowd’s support due to their hardy display in bare feet against the pristine boots of the French. It could even have turned out differently had two penalties not been missed. When asked by Princess Margaret how his team could possibly take the field unafraid of the opposition’s boots, Manna recalls his wonderfully romantic response: “We could not say that there was no fund for buying boots. We just grinned and said playing without them was more comfortable.” Fast-forward 60 plus years, and it’s sad to say that a repeat of that fantastical scenario that played out remains just that: a fantasy. While football is the second most popular sport in a country of over 1 billion – surely holding some enormous potential – Baichung Bhutia remains the closest to a superstar the nation has yet produced… and his career peaked at English second division club Bury.
Indeed, since the 1970s it’s been almost impossible to imagine India again being represented at a major football tournament. (Speaking of which, those same bare feet cost India what would have been its only World Cup appearance in 1950 as boots were compulsory. But that’s another story.) In plain terms, the commodification of football as a business product has left India stuck in the previous era. Where quality of spirit, confidence, skills and leadership once governed a team’s success, now a TV deal or the right shirt sponsor can have a far greater influence. As such, clubs and nations have poured money into developing and streamlining football to be a higher quality, higher impact product with better, faster players and fatter paychecks. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen in India. Well, that isn’t strictly true. It has happened in India – just not to football.
Cricket is by far and away the most viewed, purchased and influential product in India, let alone sport, and this is a result of the BCCI’s extraordinary control of assets and income to keep the sport growing. However, reports are now coming through that the BCCI itself is keen to get a slice of the football pie. All India Football Federation (AIFF) chief Praful Patel managed to convince them, earlier this year, to give Rs 25 crore to the national football body’s project aimed at development for the 2011 Asian Cup.
On top of that, business giants Bharti Enterprises have contributed a substantial amount towards grass roots development, and top European clubs are angling to get their foot in the door before the market takes off. The money is coming, but whether it will be put to good use is a different story. Look for a moment at Diego Maradona’s visit to India last year. Maradona came under the auspices of providing inspiration and encouragement to masses of young Indian footballers, but ultimately, his visit was a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) stunt engineered to drum up support for the Lok Sabha elections earlier in the year.
Who gained the most? The CPI-M, Maradona’s agent, or the football-loving children of Kolkata? By the same token, one cannot say whether it is the AIFF, BCCI, Bharti or Chelsea FC that will benefit most in the long term as the money starts to roll into Indian football. Here’s hoping it’ll be the young Sailen Mannas in all parts of the country, as they get the chance to pursue a career and life their parents never would have had the chance to.