Football is the most popular and widely played, watched, supported and talked about game on the planet.
Standing in a queue to cross the land border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2011, the writer was greeted by a local who cried: “English? Manchester United! Prince Charles!”
It permeates everywhere and in 2018, the World Cup was broadcast on TV in 148 different countries. Yet when you look at the superpowers of world football, it looks less like a global game. According to the FIFA rankings, Belgium, France and Brazil lead the world, with England and Uruguay not far behind.
Where are the world influencers like the USA? Or the most populous countries, like China or India? The answer is, they are closer to joining the top ranks of football than you might think.
A nation of more than 1.3 billion sports fanatics that spent more than a century under British colonial rule. Surely India ought to be dominating the world stage in football.
The main constraining factor to date has been that instead of football, India took cricket to its heart. The nation is absolutely obsessed with the game, from kids playing in the dust of the shanty towns to the “pink gins on the veranda” colonial excess of Mumbai’s Cricket Club of India.
In the modern age, the love affair with the game has only grown and you’ll even find cricket betting sites in India to meet 21st century demands.
Football, however, is on the rise. In 2014, the sport’s governing body sought to emulate the success of T20 cricket by introducing the Indian Super League.
Promoters are aggressively targeting a young audience, describing football as “the game of the sons” as opposed to cricket, which can be left for the older generations.
ISL attendances are growing with every passing year, and the national team has now broken into the world top hundred. That growing support among India’s youngsters will help nurture the grassroots talent necessary to make the next step.
It’s the same story in the world’s most populous nation. Football is swelling in popularity among under-35s, and that youthful enthusiasm is starting to be reflected by results on the pitch.
China has ambitions to host a World Cup, and 2034 seems a realistic target. The nation will be determined to improve on its one previous showing and the government has committed to the creation of 50,000 youth academies over the next five years.
Major League Soccer (MLS) has propelled the popularity of football – or soccer – into the mainstream. In fact, it is the second most popular spectator sport among American under-35s.
The incredible heroics of the women’s team in last year’s World Cup have helped to promote the popularity of the game beyond the confines of MLS, but the men’s game has failed to reach the same heights.
That could all change over the coming decade, however. There are ambitious investment plans afoot to place the USA back in the upper echelons of the game and rid it of its reputation as a sport open only to rich kids.
The world football landscape is set for dramatic changes. Will the likes of Belgium, Brazil and the rest be able to rise to the challenge?