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The last time India qualified for the FIFA World Cup was 1950. Not only is that sad in itself, the reason India qualified was because some nations had been banned and others refused to play due to tensions following World War II. India qualified by default, but they never actually played in that World Cup – the Indian federation ruled against participating due to lack of practice, financial constraints, and poor management. You may have heard that they refused to participate because they wanted to play barefoot – that is not true, although it is true that India played barefoot during the 1948 Olympics.
For over fifty years, Indian football has been invisible on the global stage. There have been a few highlights within Asia, but never worldwide. When it comes to sports, India is a huge market. This report by KPMG India lays out the business of sports in India in detail. There is strong growth in online sports media consumption, viewership, investment, and overall upward trend in the industry within India.
Football in India is structured in the form of two “leagues”. The I-League is the official FIFA recognized domestic league with 10 clubs. This league has serious problems – specifically financial problems. Clubs are always struggling to find money as they rely solely on sponsorship revenue since all match-day and commercial revenue goes directly to the governing body (AIFF). The other league, which is more of a tournament, is the Indian Super League which has grown in popularity. The ISL consists of 8 clubs who play over a 3-month period with the top 4 teams playing in a playoff at the end of the regular season. This league is heavily marketed and very popular (as seen in the interactive viz above), partly due to the fact that there has been significant investment in the league and clubs are all owned by famous celebrities.
Given the large market, why hasn’t India, with a population of 1.2+ billion, become a football-crazy country? Why hasn’t the AIFF (All India Football Federation) been able to find eleven players to field a competitive team in World Cup qualifying? It’s easy to blame the quality of the players, but they are just symptoms of a much worse disease – we must look at the root cause of this systematic problem.
Problem #1: Lack of Youth Encouragement
The first constraint on growth of football in India is the fact that sports are always secondary to education. For kids growing up in India, sports are always a “side thing” – something that you just do as a hobby as a child, only to never play it again once you reach high school age. Children in schools are simply not encouraged by parents or teachers to take up sports.
That being said, you cannot blame the parents. Upward social mobility, especially in low income families, is virtually non-existent. The only way for a lot of children in India to escape poverty is to study (usually a STEM field) and hope to find a safe, stable job – and thus settle for middle class mediocrity. If you’re part of the lucky few upper middle-class kids who have had sports encouragement at a young age, odds are it is probably for cricket (more on that later).
There appears to be a vicious circle in India when it comes to sports for kids: parents/schools do not encourage sports because there is a lack of foundation to support development, and there is a lack of foundation because not enough parents are encouraging kids to take up sports seriously. See the problem?
There is no clear solution to this. It’s part of Indian culture, and culture is usually very inelastic – only time can change it. Perhaps over time as football grows in the country at a grassroots level, today’s generation will encourage their children to play the beautiful game. This must be complimented by private sector and government investment in football as well.
Problem #2: Cricket > Football
India is and will forever be a cricket country. As someone who cricket, I understand. India has never been this good at any sport. The Indian National cricket team is currently ranked #1 in Test cricket, #4 in ODI, and #2 in Twenty20 format. Cricket players in India are treated like Gods. There has never been a lack of Indian cricketers for kids to look up too – from Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, to Virat Kohli today.
This poses a problem for football in India – it will always be second to cricket. If a child ever decides to play sports, he/she most likely has a cricketer in mind as a role model. The weird part is that a lot of Indian cricket players have openly stated football was their first love. M.S. Dhoni, former captain of the Indian team used to be a goalkeeper as a child. One day in school a coach saw his impressive goalkeeping ability and convinced him to play as a wicket-keeper on the cricket team, and the rest is history. Current Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli is also a huge Real Madrid fan and has said Cristiano Ronaldo is his role model.
Access to football matches on television is key in developing an interest. Football on TV in India is growing as Star Sports and SPN broadcast most major leagues and competitions.
Hopefully as the sports industry and coverage on television grows, more and more kids will aspire to be a footballer. For now, cricket dominates the imaginations of most young dreamers.
Problem #3: Poor Infrastructure
There is a serious lack of a support system in India for football. There is lack of youth academies, world class training centers, and proper fields to play on. FIFA has invested millions of dollars in Asia and even given grants to the AIFF to promote youth academies and facilities to develop football in India. The AIFF has since been heavily criticized for mismanaging the money and simply sitting on the cash. There is also criticism of the AIFF for focusing too much on playing “tikki-takka” football and focusing on philosophies instead of playing to the strengths of their players.
In 2007, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter had this to say about football in India after a press reporter asked him about ambitions of Indian football clubs to play like Manchester United and Real Madrid:
“You don’t have any idea how big they are. Don’t even think about them. The infrastructure I saw at the clubs here is from the past, past century. Build the infrastructure first and then try to follow China” – Sepp Blatter
This article by Shamik Chakrabarty and Mihir Vasavda perfectly sums up the disorganization and failure of the AIFF when it comes to infrastructure and development of football in India. Change needs to come at the very top of the AIFF or else fans in India will be stuck with mediocrity once again. There must be a focus on investments in privately funded stadiums, revenue sharing with clubs, and development of world class facilities. Additionally, the coaches hired by AIFF must play to the strengths of the team instead of simply trying to copy Guardiola’s philisophy.
It’s easy for me to sit here and complain about Indian football. It’s not all bad – there has been progress.
This October, India will host the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup. This is a huge step forward for India. The AIFF and Indian government has also stated that depending on the performance and success of this event, they will consider future FIFA World Cup bids.
Perhaps the most important part of this deal is something called Mission XI Million. Mission XI Million, as described on the fifa.com article, is a grassroots program designed to encourage children to play football. This is exactly what the country needs.
“A Government of India and All India Football Federation initiative, Mission XI Million is a school contact program that aims at improving the football culture of India, building the football ecosystem and ultimately widening the talent pool for the various national teams. It is intended to spread the scheme across 36 cities, reaching out to more than 15,000 schools and over 11 million children.”
In addition, the program aims to grow the sport by encouraging football in schools so kids gain exposure at an early age. There’s no telling how well AIFF and the Indian Government will run this program due to infamous corruption and mismanagement within India, but this is a step in the right direction.
Furthermore, there has been progress in the overall sporting industry within India. The market for sports, consisting primarily of cricket, football, and various Olympic sports, has grown significantly.
La Liga, the Spanish top division, has openly expressed interest in investing in India. President of La Liga Javier Tebas stated in an interview, “India is a very important strategic market for La Liga and we hope to grow in India further and make it the biggest football league in this country”. He goes on to state how they plan on opening offices in India and promoting the league through ambassadors like Raul, Puyol, and Luis Figo.
Spain is also the home to 18-year-old Ishan Pandita, who signed with Leganes last year and is the first Indian ever to sign with a La Liga club.
The future of sports in India is bright as there is a lot of money being pumped into the industry. The question now is how the I-League, ISL, and AIFF will seize the opportunity and grow football to solve the three key aforementioned problems.
The image above from KPMG helps illustrate what needs to be done. It essentially touches on solutions to the three major problems previously mentioned – improving infrastructure, building a football sports culture to compete with cricket, and investing in schools to introduce football into the curriculum.
TL;DR: India has systematic problems, but the country is heading in the right direction
The three primary reasons why football has not exploded in India is lack of encouragement by parents and teachers to play sports, the popularity of cricket overshadowing football, and a lack of any plan from the AIFF when it comes to investment in infrastructure to develop a football support system for the country. On the contrary, the country has taken a step in the right direction with investments made in ISL, television broadcasting, and hosting the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
I’d like to end by stating that I am biased since I value football a lot. Not everyone in India is as crazy about football as some of us, and it is important for us to understand and accept that.
18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume came up what he called “Hume’s Guillotine” (also known as the is-ought dilemma). Hume argues that it is illogical for individuals to take positive statements (statement about how the world “is”) and jump to normative (how the world “should be”) conclusions. The reasoning is that there is no way to rationally go from facts about what actually is to how the world ought to be without using moral judgments about what we individually value.
For example, the statement “There are starving people in Africa” is a positive statement about how the world is. The statement “There are starving people in Africa so you ought to finish your dinner” is a normative statement. The first sentence is a description of the world which can be backed by facts, the second sentence is a value judgement based on preferences and intuition. This person values not wasting food, so they take a fact about how the world is and use it to make a moral argument that supports their belief. This moral-based judgement is not inherently bad or wrong, but it is worth recognizing when people are making such leaps without acknowledging their biases.
This case is similar. Just because Indian football is not big in India does not mean that it should be. My argument, based on my individual moral judgement, simply highlights the three key areas that need to be addressed if we want football in India to become successful. Making a categorical imperative about the entire country’s culture and tradition is not my intention.
Perhaps one day football will overtake cricket in popularity, or the I-League and ISL will merge to create a strong & stable domestic league, or a footballing prodigy will emerge and lead India to a FIFA World Cup. As a fan, I hope that day is sooner rather than later.