India – a sleeping giant in world football?

by Jim Keoghan

india-football-picWith the World Cup now over, there is an undeniable sense that this has been a good tournament for some of the more ‘peripheral’ footballing nations.

Over the past few decades, countries and continents that were once seen as marginal forces in world football have gradually made their presence felt on the international stage. It’s a development that has given hope to those nations that have remained at the edges, nations such as India.

Unsurprisingly, given its connection with England, India has a long relationship with football. The sport was introduced to the country during the mid-nineteenth century and the Indian FA was founded as early as 1893. Over the century that followed, football weaved itself into the fabric of Indian life, becoming a popular sport across society.

But despite its popularity, it’s fair to say that the game always played second-fiddle to cricket, a sport that has become synonymous with the country. Like American Football in the USA, cricket enjoys pre-eminence in India, garnering the kind of support, money and media attention that football can only dream of. Its leading players are lauded as celebrities and the country’s top teams enjoy massive followings. Games in Indian cricket’s Premier League (IPL) enjoy average attendances of around 23,000, and since it was founded in 2008, the IPL has managed to build a brand value of $3 billion.

Back in the 1990s the first concerted attempt by football to tackle this problem of playing ‘second-fiddle’ was launched by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), through its establishment of the National Football League (NFL), which featured twelve clubs drawn from across the country.

The motivation behind the creation of the NFL was to introduce a strong degree of professionalism into Indian football. By this measure, the league was a failure. Throughout its existence, the NFL continually suffered from poor infrastructure and its clubs were very badly run, with several failing to pay players for lengthy periods.

Despite there being some highpoints (with clubs such as Mohun Bagan and Kingfisher East Bengal enjoying decent attendances), the league also failed to truly capture the public’s imagination, drawing in average crowds that were regularly dwarfed by those attending cricket matches.

In response to these manifold problems, the AIFF decided to rebrand and restructure domestic football in 2007 via the creation of the I-League. Although an improvement on the NFL, overall the league has still failed to truly address the many challenges that Indian domestic football faces. Although there are clubs that enjoy significant followings, such as Mohun Bagan and Shillong Lajong, the League’s average attendance stands at around 5,000, with half of its clubs regularly pulling in less than 3000 fans per game. Many of the clubs involved are also mired in financial problems and commercially the I-League remains fairly backward.

And yet, despite these failings there is a sense of hope amongst those who wish to see professional football prosper in India. Although cricket remains more popular, football is still well followed in the country and growing in popularity. Recent research by the India-based TV ratings agency TAM has revealed that between 2005 and 2009 the country’s football audience increased by 60 per cent to 83 million (just 40 million behind cricket).

Within this demographic, there appears to be a huge appetite for foreign football, specifically the English Premier League. During the most recent season, more than 230 EPL matches were broadcast in the country. This huge market for foreign football has tempted several big European clubs, including Man Utd, Liverpool and Barcelona to open youth academies in the country, with an aim to find a profile-boosting, home-grown talent or their own.

The problem facing the Indian football authorities is essentially their inability to establish a domestic model attractive enough to tap into this growing interest and create a degree of momentum that would enable the sport to challenge the domination of cricket.

Undaunted by past failures, the latest wheeze to do just this is the Indian Super League (ISL), created by the IMG-Reliance and the AIFF.

Scheduled to kick-off in September and conclude in November, the ISL will feature eight competing franchises (Bengaluru, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune), each of which is allowed a squad of 22 players. To add a bit of glamour to proceedings, within this figure, every club is allowed to obtain one marquee foreign signing, with the likes of Luis Garcia, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg either already lined up to play or rumoured to be involved.

It’s clear that the thinking behind the ISL is to ape what had been done by the IPL within cricket. Its format, within which a number of franchises compete over the course of a few months in a shortened Twenty20 game (with the inclusion of marquee  signings) has been enormously successful in further popularising an already popular sport and creating a huge amount of revenue for those involved. There is a hope that the ISL can do something similar for football and finally provide a medium through which Indians can engage with the domestic game.

Should it be successful then it is hoped that the ISL, could help develop a new generation of Indian footballers too and in doing to provide the national side with a much needed boost.

At the moment, in international terms, India is a footballing minnow. The national team is ranked 147th in the world, behind the football powerhouses of Afghanistan and North Korea. It all seems a long way away from the days when the country was one of Asia’s leading footballing nations, winning the Asian games in 1951 and 1962 and finishing fourth at the 1956 Olympics (the best ever finish for an Asian country at the time).

The hope is that the more popular and professional the game becomes, the greater the amount of investment it will attract. This will then better equip Indian football to develop and nurture domestic talent, which in the long-term will be of benefit to the national side’s ability to compete at the top level.

Those involved with the game are optimistic that such an outcome is possible. After all, you need only look at what has happened in other countries to prove that. In the USA, over the course of just twenty years a footballing non-entity without a professional league has become a World Cup regular possessed of a domestic league that has gone from strength-to-strength. And this has been done in a country that was dismissive of the sport. India already has a willing audience. All it needs now is a domestic game worthy of its attention.

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