An Ailing Sport Needs Rebooting
If sport in India is to go global, it will need to embrace football, the most global of sports
India has had iconic footballers like Sailen Manna, who inspired a generation, and carried his barefoot feats to distant lands. In the 1948 London Olympics, a fighting India went down 1-2 to France. India qualified for the 1951 World Cup, but without a guiding spirit and funds to tell where the power and opportunities in world football lay, India missed a chance to play the best. It still remained good enough to test the world’s leading teams in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, being beaten by Yugoslavia 1-4 in the semifinals and 0-3 by Bulgaria in the third place play-off. India’s fourth place finish at Melbourne was its best performance in the Olympics, with Neville Stephen D’ Souza, the joint top goal scorer.
The reasons for this early bloom are to be found in the traditions the British left behind. In the 1950s, while the halo of empire was fading, a trickle of quality British players to India still continued, to infuse Indian football with new blood. With the British connection gone in the 1960s, football struggled to find its place in India. Japan, whom India had beaten regularly up to the 1960s, made an ascension, while India continued to lag. Other Asian nations stole a march over India, which was reduced to a team of subcontinental class. Today, football in India sputters towards indifferent outcomes. With an unflattering world ranking of 155 in September, 2013, it has no star value.
Still, efforts have not been lacking to instil glamour into Indian football. Even as football standards in India fell, the Nehru Cup had a good start in 1982. In 1984, Argentina sent a quality team, and six from that team, including Jorge Burruchaga, went on to represent Argentina in the World Cup- winning team in 1986. Teams from Uruguay, Russia, the USSR, Denmark and China played in the first three editions. Romania, Iraq, Hungary, Poland and North Korea have also featured in the Nehru Cup. But for this tournament to continue, attracting good teams, India had to perform at the premier level.
As India continued its run in the Nehru Cup’s bottom heap, big teams began to avoid the tournament. For example, the USSR thrashed India 6-0 in the 1986 Nehru Cup, sparing the hosts a bigger defeat only out of civility. The tournament fell into slow decline. In the three editions in 2007, 2009 and 2011, the only teams from beyond the subcontinent to participate were Syria, Cambodia and Kyrgyzstan. In the 15th edition in 2012, Cameroon joined Syria, bringing a better brand of football to the table.
In 2012, Cameroon sent its “Local Lions”, a developmental team, composed of players from its domestic league. It had Paul Bebey Kingue, who played for the national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as Moundi, Eloundo and Moumasa, who played with the national team for two to three years. Given Cameroon’s past feats in the World Cup, Indians embraced Cameroon’s football with joy, and victory over Cameroon in the finals of the Nehru Cup 2012 sent the fans at Delhi’s Nehru Stadium into a happy daze. Having watched that game, I remember the crowd’s roar as the game ended.
But the Nehru Cup is not an annual feature. India’s inability to field a competitive team is not the only problem in attracting world class teams to the Nehru Cup. It costs two to three million US dollars to get a good team for an international tournament in India. This is beyond the reach of the All India Football Federation. Besides, the European season is from August to March, as is the Indian season. In Europe, it is the clubs that pay their players. During the playing season they do not release players for tournaments elsewhere, except on dates set by FIFA. For the All India Football Federation, to fix a tournament on dates provided by the FIFA is difficult.
Under FIFA rules, all the participating teams need to send ‘A’ teams, or a tournament does not count for ranking points. Without the participation of ‘A’ teams, the Nehru Cup remains an invitational tournament. So, in the 2012 edition should the AIFF have invited all ‘A’ teams, to get India ranking points, rather than a developmental Cameroon team that was better than many ‘A’ teams? The AIFF secretary general, Kushal Das, told me that ranking points matter less than the development of the sport. As he explained, India needs to improve, by playing better teams, regardless of ranking points. On this score, India does not inspire confidence right now, and this year the team failed to defend the SAFF Cup, with only national teams from South Asia in the fray.
Das also revealed that it requires six to seven crore Indian rupees to organise the Nehru Cup. Should the AIFF invest so much in a tournament, or is the money better spent by sending the Indian team for tours abroad? Fairly, both approaches meet the objective of developing the game India. Having the tournament is probably a good option, because thousands of youth could be inspired by a Baichung Bhutia, or a Sunil Chetri to play the game. A tournament in India does more to widen the catchment area, than sending the team abroad. Perhaps, with more sponsorship, the AIFF could follow a mix of both approaches. IMG-Reliance’s plan to start an IPL-style league could benefit the game.
Will Indian football make an ascension? With cricket taking so much sporting space, the AIFF finds it difficult to scout for talent in the entire country. The game’s focus has shifted from Punjab to the south, where the game is well run by the state associations. Bengal and the northeast have a strong football culture, but the need is for country-wide support. Ironically, television, which should actually be promoting Indian football, has had the opposite effect. In the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of mass television, Indians attended a lot of football games. But today, television makes it easy to access the world’s best football, without a fee. A few icons like Baichung Bhutia are not enough to attract television viewers to Indian football. Indian football desperately needs some success to instil public interest in it.
By Jitendra Nath Misra
(The author is an Indian Foreign Service officer. The views in this article are his own, not those of the Government of India.)