The long dark night of Indian football

Football's roots in India are old and strong, but economic factors have kept it from flourishing

The year was 1911. A little over two decades after its founding, Mohun Bagan had made it to the finals of the IFA Shield, India’s premier football tournament. Its opponent: the East Yorkshire Regiment. A hundred thousand people turned up at the field to watch the Bengali club take on the colonial overlords—and, as it turned out, win. Of the euphoria that followed, the Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote: “It was as if the whole population had gone mad and to compare it to anything would be to minimise the effect."

Earlier this month, Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri had to plead with Indian football fans to support the national team. That team is, again, missing out on a football World Cup that is almost certain to be the most viewed event in history. Its previous two iterations, in 2010 and 2014, pulled in 3.2 billion viewers apiece—nearly half of humanity. Where, in that century between the Calcutta Football Club field and the opening ceremony at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday, did Indian football take a wrong turn?

Its beginnings were auspicious, as Ronojoy Sen has documented in Nation At Play: A History Of Sport In India. A sport of the British regiment and cantonment, it put down deep roots in the 19th century, particularly in Calcutta. Unlike cricket, which was initially the preserve of the Parsis, football started with the masses: sepoys who served with British soldiers; Calcutta colleges that fielded their own teams; children dragooned by British educators steeped in English public school sporting culture; and missionaries exporting a muscular Christianity. By the 1880s, plenty of non-white football clubs had sprung up, including Mohun Bagan. The Trades Challenge Club, the first tournament in which they could participate, kicked off in 1889.

Calcutta aside, football had a pan-India appeal, from enclaves like Hyderabad in southern India to Bombay and Goa. Its symbolism for the national movement—and later, via the Mohun Bagan-Mohammedan Sporting rivalry, for the hardening of religious identities and politics—guaranteed public passion. And for the first few years after independence, the Indian team didn’t disgrace itself at the international level. The failure to participate in the 1950 World Cup remains a puzzle today. But India placed fourth at the 1956 Olympics—albeit in a small, relatively weak field—and dominated the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962.

It has been a precipitous decline since. In their 2009 book, Soccernomics, sports writer Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski judged the Indian team to be the worst in the world after adjusting for population size, gross domestic product (GDP) and experience. India has improved since then, but it’s hard to counter the general argument when poorer, smaller countries like Senegal and Ivory Coast perform far better. The long shadow cricket casts over sport in India is often cited as a reason. There is some merit to this. But there’s more to it.

The lack of private money in football is a significant element. Here’s the truth about the World Cup: national loyalty and rivalries give it a frisson that makes it a unique spectacle, but when it comes to the quality of football played, it is inferior to European leagues like the Premier League or La Liga. The club teams, backed by massive amounts of private capital, are where the best players in the world spend the bulk of their playing time, surrounded by peers and honing their skills. A national team is only as good as the club experience its players bring to the table.

A statistical model The Economist has created to figure out what makes a country good at football (goo.gl/w3WH9z) bears this out. It identifies catching talent early and fostering creativity as two important elements for success. Clubs, with their networks of talent scouts, academies, financial support for promising children and high quality coaches for every age group, fulfil these functions.

India’s football club culture was historically strong and had substantial private sector backing through the initial post-independence decades. That backing, however, didn’t translate into infrastructure and talent pipelines. Poor remuneration for players, forcing them to focus on their day jobs for financial security, didn’t help. And club culture couldn’t entirely make up for the national team’s poor performance post-1962.

Cricket, by contrast, had it easier. The primacy of the national team and far less competition at the international level meant that success was easier to come by. And when it came—starting with the Ajit Wadekar-led Indian team’s victories against the West Indies and England in the early 1970s—popularity followed. Historian Satadru Sen was only half-joking when he argued in 2002 that Sunil Gavaskar, the architect of the West Indies victory along with Dilip Sardesai, killed Indian football. Naturally, when liberalization rolled around, the money went where the eyeballs were.

Leagues like the I-League and Indian Super League are a start when it comes to resuscitating football in India, even if cricket’s Indian Premier League sucks up all the oxygen in the room. Urban viewership demand is rising as well. However, the domestic supply can’t fulfil it when far higher quality European leagues are easily accessible. Indian football has decades of accumulated disadvantage to contend with—and a long, hard slog ahead of it.

Why did football not succeed in India as much as cricket? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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