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Kick-Starting Indian Football

Kick-Starting Indian Football

September 18, 2009

Cricket is the mother of all sports in India, but as the money starts to roll into Indian football, could this slowly change?

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.


  • Deepa
    05.07.12 11:01 AM
    Excellent post. I was going to write a similar post about how a cricketing nation seems to be slowly moving towards football. In the society where I stay, every 4 buildings have a playground. A few years ago, these used to be chock-a-block with cricket players. Now all I see everywhere is kids in shorts with knee length socks, wearing Messi tshirts and kicking around a football! Its happening! Earlier football lovers used to be more nerdy kids, smart, classy and a little different than the other typical cricket taporis. Now it seems to be pulling the masses in too! Nice article Barnaby!
  • Jenevi
    15.06.12 03:35 AM
    Dr Telimaran Ao was the captain of the Indian football team in 1948. He also played for Mohun Bagan for quite some time.
  • Atheist Indian
    Atheist Indian
    05.04.12 11:15 PM
    If we keep waiting for an ace footballer to be 'born' and take the country out of the football quagmire it is in, it would be a very long wait.

    As a North Eastern, I grew up watching football. Cricket was and is never my thing - way too slow, way too boring and way too desi. While there seems to be many well funded league football clubs in the football crazy states of India (West Bengal, Goa, Meghalaya, Assam, etc.), the initiative to create and maintain a decent country level team is terribly lacking.

    I'd say the same for weightlifting and boxing as well, these are two other areas where some states of India have Olympic potential.
  • Soumyaranjan Dash
    Soumyaranjan Dash
    05.04.12 05:33 PM
    One day, our Sachin Tendulkar of football will born. Wait!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    18.05.11 08:07 PM
    Thanks, it is such an interesting topic because there's an incredible potential here - both for player ability and performance and for support - but it's going largely untapped.

    You're absolutely right that a viable strategy is what's really needed, and I sure don't have one...
  • AussieDesi
    18.05.11 07:43 PM
    Just saw your post on the NRI's front page - interesting points re the cash injection.

    My understanding is that the individuals in charge of the AIFF haven't really changed for decades. As long as they are ok, and getting tickets to Asian Cups and Olympics, there is no incentive to change anything.

    Its easy to rant about cricket taking all the money and attention, but its another thing to have a viable strategy to combat it.

  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    20.02.11 03:31 PM
    Great comment, Shravan - I'd never heard of Sunil Chettri. One high-profile success would do a lot more for India than it did for a country like Liberia because the commercial implications are on a much larger scale. If Indians become more interested in their own footballers' fortunes, there's a lot of money to be made, and money is the only way a sport can gain traction in the modern era.

    I wrote this over a year ago and we haven't heard anything from that BCCI money, or seen any major on-pitch successes. I wonder when something big will happen? It seems like it ought to only be a matter of time with so many people and so many talented players in the country.
  • Shravan Bhat
    Shravan Bhat
    10.02.11 03:44 PM
    We need a star. We need someone like Sunil Chhetri to be our George Weah - a player far too good for his country, who can make it in a big European league and raise the sport's profile in India. Once we have that, the money will flow and the interest will rise in rural as well as urban areas. Football has to become a viable career option for kids.
  • football
    01.12.10 07:30 PM
    Who cares - football is a western game anyway. Bring back Kabaddi I say!
  • vinod
    27.06.10 08:19 AM
    Hey, great post! Didnt know in such detail about the France game before! Hope something changes for the good..
  • Siddharth
    05.05.10 05:11 PM
    We can rant as long as we want. But nothing is gonna happen unless there is a major change in the mindset of people. We cannot bring about this change overnight. Will take a decade atleast provided we have co-operation from all fronts.

    The Plight of a football fan in India is expressed here in my blog.

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