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“Football Takes Over”

“Football Takes Over”

India is all set to be taken over by football fever with the 17th edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup getting underway from 6th to 28th October across six cities in the country. With 24 nations vying for the pinnacle spot in the first World Cup ever to be held in India, the country is in for some scintillating football that will leave fans dazzled.

However, the fact remains that despite being a game that is played, adored and ardently followed by millions across the globe, football is hardly cared for in India, except maybe in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Goa and the North East. 

As legacies of the British colonizers, both, Cricket and football ought to have found equal following amongst the countrymen. But whereas Cricket is touching the zenith of popularity, football continues to languish at the bottom of the table of favourite games.  

However, it is high time people stopped comparing the game of football in India with cricket!

As the richest sporting body in the country, the BCCI has been instrumental in the development of cricket at all levels. With timely innovations to the game which has been seeing spectacular audience attendance in the stadia across the country, cricket as the gentleman’s game has been fulfilling spectator expectations when it comes to the entertainment quotient.

Take the Indian Premier League of cricket for instance!

IPL has revolutionized the game. Having had a series of successful runs year after year, the cricketing extravaganza in each of its edition has been enthralling the nation to no end. As a platform for showcasing their talents, many uncapped players have taken this opportunity to stake their claims for a place in the national side.

Moreover, with players being signed on for princely remunerations by their respective clubs and the Board, it has helped them gain financial security which in turn ensures that the country gets the cream de la crème representing it.

We can have youngsters thinking of making a career in any sport only if it entails employment security which affords them the financial stability that comes of a regular job. Hence the fascination for a cricketing career!

For a fact though, cricket-mania has permeated every nook and corner of the country with more and more youngsters today dreaming of becoming the next Dhonis and Virats of Indian cricket!

It would however come as a rude shock to the aficionados of the ball game that there are only a very few in the country who want to emulate the likes of a Messi or Ronaldo and even they fail to hold the ‘die-hard’ fans spellbound after telecasts of a world Cup or the other European Soccer league championships come to an end.

As the country’s second most popular sport after cricket, football in India has had only disappointment written all over it. In spite of having flashes of brilliance from a few ‘prodigies’ over the years, the game of football in India is still considered to be in the nascent stage.

Although news that India has broken into the top hundred in the world rankings comes as a refreshing bit of news, star performers of Indian football figuring as signees in innocuous club sides in Europe and Latin America, and not lasting the full term either, paints a very pathetic picture of football scenario in the country. Besides, footballers there are physically and technically more sound than Indians which explains why our players find it difficult to make the crossover. 

Furthermore, the All India Football Federation, with its style of functioning, has been a poor precursor of the game in the country. Plagued by nepotism and other ills that afflict sporting bodies having politicians and individuals with no intrinsic knowledge of the sport at the helm of affairs has spelt doom for football in the country. Couple this with lack of sponsorship and the infrastructure, and the circle is complete.

With little or no knowledge of how football is evolving around the world, our players and officials are always at a distinct disadvantage. It is irony indeed that the best of players in the country find it a monumental task to make a mark on the global scenario.

Moreover, club-football which has proved to be the cradle of the game in the country with stars being churned out with every edition of the league-games in force over the years have only proved to be happy hunting grounds for foreign recruits who have made merry on the largesse of the clubs promoted by leading business houses in the country.

In keeping with the perilous nature of the game, the injury-plagued and short-lived careers of many a player has not helped the cause of Indian football either!

But then, India as a sporting country has never subscribed to a club culture and hence the substantial spectator presence whenever the national side takes the field. Football in our country is fuelled by passion!

India’s flirtation with ‘high voltage’ soccer which began with the Indian Super League fixtures four years back has achieved soaring success and with it the turnaround in fortunes of the game in the country.

Empty stands and listless audiences have now been replaced by packed stadia and vociferous crowds egging on their teams. Channels telecasting the games live too have boasted of a loyal viewership.

With a ready mix of stalwarts from abroad rubbing shoulders with local talent, the competitions have infused the necessary spark in the games to draw crowds to the playing fields. The Indian Super League has not only attracted significant corporate funding, but has also led to considerable improvement in infrastructure.  

The ISL has also managed to forge new passions for the sport, as well as rejuvenate dormant ones among the country’s sporting fans. More importantly, players are being noticed, allowing them the luxury of basking in the glory of their achievements.  

Accepting that the longer version of the cricket was proving too tedious for spectator interest, the ‘pioneering’ efforts by a concerned few to have an abridged version of the game saw the One Day Internationals taking shape. The huge success of the ODIs prompted the administrators to experiment with the Twenty20 format.  

Innovation is the name of the game today. The novelty associated with such ‘modifications’ will never fade and promises to put an end to the token presence of fans in the stadium and revive spectator interest in the sport in India.

Similarly, the game of football too needs freshness to be breathed into it from time to time with conceptualizations that will endear the sport to the public. For example, Premier Futsal, a 5-a-side shorter variant of football with two playing halves of 20 minutes each that has been a big draw in India! 

In this respect, the hosting of such a mega-event is a boon that has come India’s way. Let us hope the FIFA U-17 World Cup heralds a new era of football in the country!

(Published on 16th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 42)