Indian Football: What’s Wrong With It?

“There’s over 1.2 billion people over there and we can’t come up with 11 f**king guys to make a team?”

–Russell Peters

The above sentence, though said in jest, is sadly true. A nation like India, from reaching the pinnacles of Asian football in the 1950s (where they famously qualified for the World Cup but were not allowed to participate as they preferred to play barefoot), from being one of the Asian Football Confederation, from being one of the best teams in Asia to languishing in 165th position in the latest FIFA rankings. Even countries like Maldives which has less than 1/3rd of our population is above us! Very few Indian players are even recognised in the football world. The names that may crop up like Baichung Bhutia (the first Indian to ever play for a European club – FC  Bury), Sunil Chhetri  (played half a season for Kansas City Wizards) and no, Michael Chopra is not Indian. He is English. So that about rounds it up!  For now, all we can do is analyse where we went wrong, for such a steep decline in standards has rarely been seen in world football.

1)      Politics and Sports don’t add up

Well, one of the main problems of any sports organisation in India is that it is in most cases organised by politicians who frankly care about the sport only ’till it fills up their coffers. Their only connection to the sport is in monetary terms which is how one of the biggest profit organisations in the world called the BCCI (Board of Cricket Control in India) is one of the richest government organisations in the world. It was controlled by the National Agricultural Minister, Mr. Sharad Pawar who is now President of cricket’s main body, the ICC. And this case doesn’t hold true just on football, it is true for other sports like the Olympic sports, hockey etc. Bob Houghton was recently sacked for bad results but that was not just the case,  it was revealed that he had also ALLEGEDLY racially abused an Indian Football official due to which the wheels of politics began to turn. Houghton was subsequently sacked, despite an Indian footballer’s view to the contrary. I don’t hate politics, I’m just trying to make a point here!

2)      Cricket is the main sport

Since the historic 1983 World Cup win over the mighty West Indies, cricket’s popularity has soared – and how! Ever since, the popularity of cricket has eclipsed many sports, the main victims being football and hockey. The masses – and big ticket sponsors – all threw their weight behind cricket and jumped on the continuously expanding bandwagon. The cricket fans would be mostly fanatic and for many it would be the only sport they properly know. The fact that cricket is also known as the poor man’s sport is also helping its spread throughout the country. Though recently, the cricket trend has stopped with the popularity of European football leagues like the English Premier League (followed fanatically by the urban youth) and La Liga (mostly followed by the parents of the urban youth who have grown up seeing players like Cruyff, Beckenbauer and other such) among others.

Another sub-point that can be made is the footballer’s yearn for support. They yearn for the fans to scream their name when they score a goal, they yearn for the fans to be there whether they are in form or out of form. With the exception of the Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal affair (which has an almost Old Firm-esque feel to it) players mostly play to half-empty stadiums. The newspapers are not bothered enough to extensively cover the various tournaments, too busy covering much more popular leagues like the EPL. Ask any football fan to mention any 5 clubs in Indian football and they would stutter. Ask them to mention the clubs playing in the EPL and they would rattle off the names like a parrot. Indian football needs the support!

3)      Lack of a proper grass-root structure

The grass roots have been left undeveloped for a long time. Despite a young person having oodles of talent for the beautiful game, there are hardly any facilities to improve himself unless he comes from a middle-class background. Football in India is controlled by the AIFF (All India Football Federation) which receives funds from FIFA but the organisation that is in charge of youth football (the Sports Authority of India) do not get any such grants from FIFA. All over the country (except for Kolkata) there have been below average facilities for the player to develop himself. As mentioned before, only money could get you in any football coaching place. Such a thing cannot be afforded by majority of the population. In overpopulated places like Mumbai, there are hardly any grounds that a football fan could play in with most children opting to play in their building compounds. Also, Indian parents are known to give academics more importance than extra curricular activities, therefore even if the correct facilities are in place, the parents are too reluctant to allow the child to pursue his dream. However, things are improving as a league called the Street League which aims to help under privileged children understand their abilities and chances of this happening has increased.

Well, that signals the end of this topic. So what do you think? What can be done to save Indian football?

4 thoughts on “Indian Football: What’s Wrong With It?

  1. I’m sorry, but this is wrong on so many levels.

    First of all, football is simply too much of a minority sport in India for politicians to even take a sniff at. It is under developed, it doesn’t pay much, generates very little money as a spectator sport and most importantly, is filled up predominantly with mediocre players. Unlike the BCCI, the AIFF has next to no political connections, nor has it been involved in any prominent snafu. Once again, unlike the BCCI, the AIFF is actually making headway with spreading football across the nation. The difficulties are understandable – the country’s most talented players are from the North East, and providing proper coaching and guidance on a consistent basis to these players is damn near impossible due to both logistical and geographical concerns.

    The second reason is even more nonsensical. Do you think India is the only country faced with this difficulty? The USA for instance prefers Basketball and Baseball to ‘soccer’ and the MLS is a joke to most professional footballers, but the simple fact is that they produce far far better players and teams than India ever has or probably will. The Kiwis and the South Africans both have better rugby teams than football teams, but they’re both above India in terms of rankings. Heck even Canadians have better teams than India, despite how crazy they are over Ice Hockey.

    The last point is the only one that makes sense (bits of it). I agree with you on the grass-roots concern. For too long, the country has refused to give football the same level of concern as they do cricket, and yes this has invariably led to a total non-existence of a proper footballing structure. BUT this is changing. Over the past five years or so, various campaigns have been started across the nation to identify good talent. Clubs such as Arsenal and Man United are contemplating opening soccer schools across the nation, more and more people are joining professional/sem-pro clubs and the interest in the game is piping up.

    I laugh at your mention of Mumbai. Once again, we aren’t the first country to have this issue. Almost all of today’s top players came from the streets and slums. You name it – Ronaldinho, Fat Ronaldo, CR7, Nani et al were all discovered from favelas in Brazil and Portugal. Wayne Rooney comes from a working class family, he learned to play on the streets. He was identified when during an Everton v Man Utd U-12 game when he singlehandedly scored about 10 goals or so against United. Not the pitch, the streets. Oh and the “parents prefer academics” line? Not just in India mate.

    I apologize for maybe being too harsh. It annoys me how easily people can be armchair pundits and criticize everyone from the AIFF to one’s own gardener for the state of the game in India. Sure, it was crap at a time, but it isn’t anymore. We are progressing, and in years to come, we will probably make it to the big ‘uns. But that said, the fact that you’re Indian, and that you’ve done next to no research on this piece is poor.

  2. Ok I would like to answer your questions

    1) AIFF is controlled by a politician who is a member of the Congress, Praful Patel who is the head of the AIFF. He has been alleged of using the AIFF as a place for funnelling through black money. The vice-president of the AIFF is Venod Sharma, a member of the Congress Political party. The other members are mostly minor politicians as well including Tempo Bhutia who is Minister of Land Revenue of Sikkim. Praful Patel is the Cabinet Minister. No political interference is it?

    2) But then again, you frankly tell me, isnt the I League considered a joke here in India as well? Most of the players making headlines are not Indian and considering the money we are spending on them is more than what we spend on our own players is astonishing. As mentioned above, Indian football is followed mostly in Kolkata and simply hasnt been able to spread in other parts of India. Now 16 years of the I-League are set to be completed, but still the league isn’t fully professional and one doesn’t know when it will finally become a full-fledged Pro League though the general organisation, scheduling and structure within the clubs has improved quite a bit over the years. The MLS and the Canadian footballing scene has produced some world class players like Landon Donovan (USA), Junior Hoilett (CANADIAN) playing in the Premier League. Meanwhile, our best player so far, Baichung Bhutia could only manage a place in a league one side (then league 2) FC Bury. Chhetri got to play in Kansas City Wizards but returned after playing not even one competitive match. Then in the USA, the concept of “Little League” tournaments which make children start at the tender age of 3-4 years of age. This tournament is organised in every district of majority of the towns in USA. They have this youth system firmly in place. The only sport in India where that is in place is CRICKET. You may have said that, “the MLS is a joke to most professional footballers, but the simple fact is that they produce far far better players and teams than India ever has or probably will.” but the simple thing is that so is the I-League. I-League unlike the MLS has no global impact whatsoever. Many experts believe that India does not do well nationally because of the no. of foreigners in our ranks. Till now, not a single Indian has won the golden boot. Unknown african players come here, score goals, earn bootloads of cash and leave. That is the case. MLS has merchandising, I-League has none.

    3) The case I am trying to make is that the AIFF has very rarely organised youth camps for footballers. The initiative has only been taken by private companies like the TATA TEA JAAGO RE! football camp. Man Utd has already established a soccer school in Mumbai, but you have to understand. It is NOT for football reasons, it is to establish their reputation in South east Asia. You may be a ManU fan but that is the reality of it friend. The Jaago Re camp sends players to Arsenal for training. But what happens to them after that? Nothing. MLS and Canada hold free for all youth camps for which the entrance fee is precisely nothing. The AIFF can not do that because as long as the politician is under the helm, nothing will happen. Then again, at your mention of players like Rooney and Ronaldinho, I would like to say that they would have got PAID. In England, a club would organise a youth camp for free or for a small entrance fee. They would pick the best, make them sign contracts in which they would be paid what 65 pounds a week? In India, there is no such thing. Even if a person from the streets would have had “the skills” it would have amounted to precisely nothing as you need to pay your way to build on your skills. Ronaldo from Brazil, Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dinho all got their chances because 1) In these countries, scouts are always on the roaming around, looking for players to sign to their clubs, not the case in India. 2) The players once again are PAID once they sign, giving incentive to continue, not the case in India. Very rarely, do such players get scholarships as mostly scholarships are given to other sports like cricket. Baichung Bhutia was a rare example and will continue to be unless things change.
    And please do not call Ronaldo, “Fat Ronaldo” it is disrespectful to a such a high quality player.

    I would like to end by saying that please, some of your points may have been valid, but next time before you accuse somebody of doing “next to no research” please do some research on your own.
    Thank You.

    • Ha 😀

      I’m glad to see I got your attention kid. But you missed my premise entirely. If you wanted to write a piece on why Indian football isn’t making it, then this is what you should’ve written in the first place. This makes sense. It is frank, to the point, and doesn’t meander about referring to the BCCI and what not. This is how you should’ve said and that’s all I’m criticizing.

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