If the kids playing cricket on a piece of rural scrub-land are anything to go by, then the omens are not good. “Football is trash,” shouts one young boy, no more than ten years old. Indeed, none of the dozen or so youngsters has even heard of Barcelona, Liverpool or the Manchester clubs. There is not a flicker of recognition at the names Messi or Ronaldo. What makes this all the more ominous for those championing football in India is that the kids are playing cricket on a piece of land barely a mile (kilometer) or two from the training ground of the local football club Pune FC, a team which plays in India’s top league. The challenge for football is considerable, notwithstanding a TV fan base for international football of some 80 million. Despite its British imperial heritage and potential pool of talent among its 1.2 billion population, India has a distinct lack of footballing prowess, at least for its home-grown talent. Currently the national team languishes in 156th spot in FIFA’s rankings, tied with Liechtenstein (population 36,000) and just below St Vincent and the Grenadines (population 103,000).
Not a single player in the current national squad plays for any of the big teams outside their home country. But there are serious moves afoot to ignite a footballing passion in India. More than 60 years on, with another World Cup looming in Brazil and the Indian economy booming, there are renewed hopes that football can finally gain a toehold in the cricket-loving country. The challenges are to nurture that growing interest while wooing fans away from watching overseas football on TV, and the need to create a strong national league and international team. Off the pitch there is the need to build football industry and infrastructure, while boosting the expertise of administrators and coaching and other backroom staff. Having fallen another place to 156 in the FIFA rankings, it can’t be said that the status of football is too bright in India right now.
Currently, Indian football has a lot of catching up to do to its European, American, and even some of its Asian counterparts. The road to success is a long one – One we need to run as a sustained marathon, and not as a fast but short sprint, which will only lead to an eventual collapse.