The Indian national football team is currently ranked a dismal 164th in the world; even behind one of the tiniest nations in the world, The Republic of Maldives, whose total population is roughly 0.03% of that of India’s. Ranked four places higher, The Maldives can eke out 11 players from their relatively small numbers who play better football than from a country with 1.2 billion people! It makes no sense whatsoever.
We weren’t always this bad you know?
It’s true. India was once a wonderful footballing nation. At the peak of their game in 1968, India was ranked 48th in the Elo Ranking system. They even qualified for the 1950 FIFA World Cup! Strangely though, the team never played in the tournament; the reasons for which will instantly bring about a shake of the head followed by a sigh:
The Indian team felt they did not have enough practice time and considered themselves heavily underprepared.
The Indian players were reluctant to go on long sea voyage
The Indian team simply did not have the money to cover all the expenses for a trip to the World Cup.
The Indian team refused to play with boots.
Yes, you read that last reason just right.They played bare-foot and refused to play with boots as they were not used to it. What are the odds on this joke being a favourite amongst football historians even today?
FIFA even went as far as offering to cover the team’s expenses and only insisted the Indians wear boots. Alas twas not to be. However, Indian skill was undeniable as they finished fourth in the 1958 Melbourne Summer Olympics, won the 1962 Asian Games and had their finest moment as they placed second at the 1964 AFC Asian Cup.
Oh, how the mighty fall!
Since 1964, the Indian national football team has not even come close to capturing their past glories. The next time they played in the Asian Cup was only in 1980, and this because India were the hosts. Things looked a little brighter after when they qualified for the 1984 Asian Cup, but it turned out to be a false dawn. Indian football fans had to wait 27 years to see their country participate in another Asian Cup. Just what in god’s name happened? Teams and tradition don’t fall apart that easily! A footballing culture was embedded into the psyche of the Indian public. The people prided themselves in the team’s achievements. It should not have happened.
Oh wait! This has happened before hasn’t it? albeit in a different sport. The Indian field hockey team too had started losing its fame and glory around about the mid 80’s. One of the greatest ever teams to ever play the game of hockey was also losing steam. Why? Simple answer: Cricket
Cricket had slowly started becoming more and more popular amongst the masses. Inspired by the achievements of the cavaliering Tiger Pataudi, the Indian cricket team had started playing with some backbone. It inspired generations of cricket fans whose imagination all coalesced in the birth of one legendary little man by the name of Gavaskar. Beating the former colonial masters at their own game was the cry of the day, and in 1984 they did so emphatically at the birthplace of cricket; in the heartland of Britain.
And so, football fell prey to mass hysteria. Hysteria transformed into passion as the birth of one Sachin Tendulkar heralded a new era of the dominance of cricket in the Indian sporting world.
Excuses, excuses, excuses
Just why can’t we play football at the highest level? These are some of the reasons listed by so-called experts of the game:
Indian bodies are not built for football. Not good enough.
Verdict: Excuse. Try making this excuse to a physically unintimidating race like the Japanese. They’ve been simply phenomenal in recent years.
Indians don’t have enough stamina
Verdict: Perhaps the lamest of excuses. If Indians lack in stamina, are they not supposed to train harder and professionally? Since when could anyone generalise the fitness of an entire race of people? India is a land of many peoples.
Not enough facilities to train our players
Verdict: The first truth to come out of the AIFF (All India Football Federation). There is no nationwide system to spot talent and nurture them into solid players. Neither are there facilities nor trainers with the right knowledge. Parents see no value in allowing their children to pursue a career in football as they see no money in it; unlike cricket, where it is unanimously seen as the golden ticket to utopia! There are no incentives for those who love football, not enough reason for them to gamble their fortunes on skill and belief. It’s either breakthrough or bust. A scary choice and often not considered seriously.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
It is true that there isn’t enough infra-structure for the sport in India for to flourish. However, talent is abundant. Statistics will tell you the interest of the Indian public in football is by no means small. This particular fact demonstrated by the huge television ratings for the Barclays Premier League. World football governing bodies have been hovering over India for quite some time now seeing the potential of the ‘beautiful game’ here; both commercial and sporting. Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, has expressed that the day is not far when India would host the FIFA World Cup. This interest by FIFA was found to be genuine recently when they decided to set up four football academies across India.
The AIFF has also been following a policy of developing young players, right from the age 12; developing technique and understanding of the game from a very young age is the way forward. The Indian U-16 team in 2007 achieved a string of impressive results against a number of college teams across the United States
They even managed a 3-3 draw with the Manchester United U-16 team. The talent is there for all to see, as the video above demonstrates. Indians can play football!
India: A dormant Brazil
It is a simple concept to understand. A real world example exists half way around the world in Brazil. A country much like India, with a burgeoning middle class and a thriving economy, Brazil has football fever. What Cricket is to India, football is to Brazil. Children barely able to stand start experimenting with a football much like how baby Indians experiment with bat and ball. Streets and alleys are packed with kids having a kick about. Legends are made in these very streets. With vociferous support from their parents, Brazilian footballers have no fear in wholeheartedly taking up the sport; much like cricket in India. Football, more than any other sport, has the best chance to break the monopoly cricket has in Indian society. It is time we opened our eyes.