With All Eyes on World Cup, India Should Be Concerned at Lack of Football Culture

At the nine Delhi-government run sports complexes, there are only two coaches for football. In other parts of the country, the situation is often worse.

New Delhi: Despite having a population of 140 crore people, why has India had such a tough time finding and training 11 players who could leave a mark on the world of football?

The Delhi government runs nine sports complexes in the city. In total, the Delhi government said in an RTI reply to The Wire, employs 35 coaches across these sports complexes, providing training for athletics, kabaddi, yoga, badminton, handball, softball, ball badminton, lawn tennis, hockey, archery, basketball, cricket, volleyball and football. Unfortunately, only two of the 35 coach footballers. This is in the capital – so one can only imagine the roadblocks faced by football enthusiasts in other parts of the country.

Fans from all over the world are gearing up for the FIFA World Cup which started on Sunday in Qatar. This year, 32 teams will compete for the grand title – but noteworthy here is that India has never been able to participate in the tournament.

Nevertheless, football is enjoyed and played across India. But there is little encouragement and incentive to play it. The authorities have not shown the political will to develop sporting capabilities, leaving the facilities and grounds for players in neglect.

The Delhi senior division football tournament is being held at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium by Football Delhi, the governing body for football in the city. Less than 50 spectators were present on the ground on November 17 to watch one of the league matches. Football Delhi organises such tournaments to promote the sport on a regular basis, but just that is not enough to draw spectators. There are heaps of garbage piled up outside the ground, and chairs in the spectator’s gallery are broken.

While governments at both the Union and state levels do often claim to be promoting and funding the sport, little impact is seen at the spaces where the sport is actually played.

The game of football has always been degraded in India

Cricket is partly responsible for the decline of football in India. After winning the 1983 Cricket World Cup, the popularity of cricket in India increased to such an extent that other sports including football were largely neglected. Even today, we can find at least one Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar or M.S. Dhoni poster in almost every house in India.

Be it in the media or Bollywood, cricket has always been privileged. News channels host hour-long discussion programmes on cricket. Movies on cricket and cricketers proliferate. We can also listen to cricket commentary on the radio. In the ‘sports’ pages of newspapers, the headline is almost always cricket-related. Only some changes have been seen after 2014, when the Indian Super League began.

More than 30 million viewers watch the European Football League in India. But not many people watch Indian competitions like the I-League, Santosh Trophy and Nehru Cup – perhaps because the quality of the game played is vastly different.

State-wise distinctions

In Kerala, West Bengal, Goa and the North East, we see football-loving people everywhere. Kerala and West Bengal have fostered fertile environments for football, whereas in small towns like Kolhapur in Maharashtra, football has been played since the pre-independence era.

Even today, thousands of people buy tickets to watch the final football match at Shahu Stadium in Kolhapur. Here, the world cup is celebrated like a festival.

Abhijeet Vanire, a football coach in Kolhapur, said, “The kids here have a lot of talent but there is a lack of infrastructure, there are no fields for the players to play. Kolhapur currently has A and B Division, with around 40 teams, but they don’t have their own or government grounds; the grounds they do have are of very poor quality which exposes the players to injuries. Whenever I take the players with the university team to places like Bhopal, Calicut and West Bengal, grass grounds can be seen, but there are no such grounds in Kolhapur.”

Photo: Atul Howale

The passion for football in silos like Kolhapur has not reached the rest of India, however. But despite that, in the Santosh Trophy, I League and ISL, Kerala players have been playing well.

Football player and journalist Ajay Tomar said, “Indian football is definitely on the rise, with ISL and I league being conducted in a scheduled manner. However, a few things need to be addressed. From making football into a regional sport dominated by a few states like Bengal, Kerala, Goa and the northeast, its popularity needs to be pan-India. Next is the strengthening of state federations in order to develop basic infrastructure like more academies, recruit more coaches and conduct timely state A, B, and C division leagues.”

Tomar added that regular live streaming of matches was important, especially when the Indian team plays outside the country. “And lastly, in my view, the ISL and I league need more clubs so that the season can go longer, and players get more games,” he said.

League football has been played in India for a long time, but since the launch of the Indian Super League in 2014, football has become somewhat popular, with the league being broadcast live on television, connecting new fans to football. The AIFF has failed to promote football. The only reason why the newly started ISL is more popular than the old I-League in India is because of the promotion they do.

There is a need to promote football at the grassroots level in India. In places like Delhi, the government needs to establish new football centres and provide training to the youth. One of the major reasons for India’s poor ranking in FIFA is a lack of awareness of the sport. Political interference, which weakens the climate for football, also needs to be addressed FIFA’s recent ban on Indian football for political and outside interference should be avoided in the future.