Football in India dates back to the nineteenth century when the game was introduced by the British soldiers. Although, Cricket is the most popular game in the country even today, football is widely celebrated in many parts of the country especially West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the North-Eastern states.In the early days, football was played only among army teams, but gradually it spread among the masses, credit of which goes to Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, who regarded as the "Father of Indian Football".
The Calcutta FC was the first club which was established in 1872. The Indian Football Association (IFA) was founded in 1893, but none of its board members was Indians.Soon, other clubs like Mohun Bagan, Sovabazar and the Aryan Club came into existence and Calcutta became the epicentre of Indian football. To promote the beautiful game, several tournaments cropped up, among those were, the Trades Cup, The Cooch Behar Cup, The Durand Cup and the IFA Shield took the spotlight. But it was in 1911, when India made a mark in football as Mohun Bagan won the prestigious IFA Shield by defeating East Yorkshire Regiments by 2-1 in the final. The win was enormous because for Indians it was not only a football match, but viewed as India's victory over the British at a time when the struggle for freedom had reached its pinnacle.As the popularity of football gained momentum, India started to tour various nations like Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia in the late 1930's. The increasein numbers of football clubs in India led to the formation of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 1937. The AIFF got affiliation from the international governing body for football,FIFA in 1948 which coincide in India's participation in its firstmajor international football tournament- the 1948 London Olympics.
In the following decade, India participated in its first major international football tournament- the 1948 London Olympics. The period from 1950 to 1962 is often referred to as the "Golden Era of Indian Football." In 1950, India got an opportunity to play in the FIFA World Cup, however, the All Indian Football Federation turned down the offer as they were unable to afford the players' long trip to Brazil (the host nation). Also, it was widely speculated that the Indian team wanted to play barefoot in the mega event (as they were accustomed to it) but this request was rejected by FIFA and hence, served as another reason for the Indian team not being part of the global event. It was also suggested that the Olympics were more popular at that time and people in India hardly knew the importance of the World Cup. The masses considered the Olympics as the ultimate, so less importance was given to the then called 'Jules Rimet' trophy. Nevertheless, in 1951 India won the Asian Games gold medal recording its first major win in an international event. The following year, the Indian football team participated in the Helsinki Olympics but failed it leave a mark. In 1954, India became one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) with the objective of promoting football within the continent; offering its players a better platform to further hone their craft and aspired to be recognized as a regional powerhouse of the beautiful game. It was the 1956 Melbourne Olympics that changed the face of Indian football. India defeated hosts Australia 4-2 and finished at the fourth spot against the expectations of many. It was the first time that India was recognised as a prominent football nation in the Asian region.
Sadly, India is still trying hard to make their first appearance on Earth's biggest football carnival—(FIFA World Cup). India has been often regarded "as the sleeping giant of football" and more often than not, Indian football fans have been teased as to "why in a country of more than a billion, can't we find 11 players to play in the world cup?". But on 6 October 2017- our youngsters offered us a glimmer of hope. It was the first ever match which India played in the history of the FIFA U17 World Cup.I can vividly recall the thoughts gushing through my mind while watching the match against the United States of America. As the Indian boys' team kicked off their campaign, I wondered if one of the players in the Blue Jersey could be the next global superstar of football? In the next match, Jeakson Singh Thounaojam became the first Indian goalscorer in any FIFA tournament. Though we qualified on the technicality of being the host nation, the performance of our players highlighted theirability to deliver resilient performances against some the best nations in the game although it was evident that the pedigree of our players remained unpolished.
Over the years, our footballers had shown their grit and psychological mettle to perform at an international stage despite limited opportunities at home. Back in 1999, one of the biggest news for Indian football was the signing of our (then) Captain- Baichung Bhutia by Bury F.C. of England. In the recent years, the signing of Indian players by international football clubs has increased--- In 2010, Kansas City Wizards at Major League Soccer (USA) had signed our Captain Sunil Chettri; in 2014 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu signed for Stabæk F.C. in the Norwegian League and then went on to become the first Indian to play in the Europa League;in 2015 Romeo Fernandes was signed on loan by Brazilian side Clube Atletico Paranaense while in the same year, Aditi Chauhan (Goalkeeper of our Women's team) singed with West Ham United. More recently,the signing of Ngangom Bala Devi by the Scottish side Rangers F.C.has served as an inspiration for several boys and girls in India who want to pursue this beautiful game, professionally.
Simultaneously, the conditions at home started to improve considerably as compared to the start of the millennia. In 2014, the first season of the Indian Super League (ISL)kicked off which provided our players with a better platform to showcase their talents and learn from some of the major star of the football universe- Del Piero, Diego Forlan, Berbatov, Roberto Carlos, Anelka, Robert Pires, Luis Garcia, David Trezeguet, John Arne Riise (to name a few) – who were signed by some of the clubs.These clubs also gave due importance to the coaching department. Since the inauguration of the league, several prominent football managers/coaches have been associated with the clubs, for instance, Sergio Lobera, Eelco Schattorie, Albert Roca, Ranko Popvic and more recently, Juan Ferrando. Additionally, the new league attracted the attention of several European football entities. In the inaugural session, Atletico de Madrid (of the Spanish league) had a tie up with the Kolkata franchise, in November 2019 Manchester City (English Premier League) bought a majority stake in Mumbai FC and then this year, Chairperson and founder of Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) and Reliance Foundation, Mrs Nita Ambani resigned an agreement with Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters to enhance the coaching, refereeing and football development in India.Another welcome sign is that the pre-season matches are often held in foreign nations by majority of the ISL clubs which gives a much needed exposure to our players to play in different climatic conditions. But the key element for me are the financial incentives provided by these clubs which encourages aspiring and current players to pursue the sport as the primary profession.
India's affection for football has been longstanding though it took considerable time for the industry to prosper. Competition faced from the cricket industry had delayed the growth of football in India. However, in the recent years the popularity of football in India has increased especially with the beginning of the broadcast of European leagues (since 1999-2000). As per a FICCI report, the viewership in India during the 2014 FIFA World Cup increased to 62 million as compared to 20 million during the 2010 edition. When,India hosted its first ever FIFA U-17 World Cup that became the most attended in the history of the event. Attendance for this tournament was at a record 1.3 million surpassing China's 1985 audience of 1.2 million.An Indian sports magazine released a report in 2016 based on Facebook data which stated that India had more followers of European clubs than Europe itself. The data stated that there were 5.4 million Manchester Unitedfollowers in India as compared to the 3.2 million in UK. Similarly, Barcelona had 8.2 million followers in India as compared to 3.5 million in Spain. But, we had lacked supporters for our own team. However, the onset of ISL served as a catalyst to usher in a new era of fans. As per a report by Deloitte, In the augural edition, ISL recorded a viewership of 426 million and an average stadium attendance of 65,000. Then in the 2016 there was a sharp increase inrural viewership which was registered at 101 million. The length of the tournament in 2017 was increased to 5 months due to increase in the popularity of the tournament. The viewership during the first 3 weeks of the tournament registered 81 million viewers.
The fan base of Indian football clubs have also grown due to the engagement in the virtual world. In the age of social media, all the clubs as well as most of the players have their own respective Facebook page, Twitter handles, and Instagram accounts. These are complimented by websites on Indian sports such as Footballpedia, Khel Now, India_Allsports, India Football Network (to name a few) which keeps us engrossed with the daily operations of a club and the latest transfer updates. This has allowed the Indian audience not only to gain a better perspective of the game but also to share their opinions and interact with their icons of the game.
These years have been termed as the resurgent years of Indian football. It is hard to argue against it as the Indian team's (men and women) ranking has witnessed an improvement compared to a few decades back. But the pivotal question still remains to be answered, When will India play in a World Cup?
The seeds for development of the game have been sowed. Yes, hosting of FIFA tournaments, collaboration with international clubs, opening of various prominent football academies (Barcelona, PSG, Manchester United, Arsenal. among others) has definitely ushered in a positive change in Indian football but much more is required to compete at the international arena. More often than not, lack of infrastructure and the minimal presence of international standard training programs have been highlighted as major stumbling blocks. But instead of pointing out the obvious hurdles, let us try to find a solution. I believe that more tournaments should be organized at the grass root level (U10, U-13, U-15, U-17, U-19) to improve the competitiveness of the players and also enable them to acquire other technical acumen, for instance, off-the-ball movement which was non-existent in India's football coaching two decades back. Double Pass of Belgium which has been operation in India for a few years now, have been organizing various categories of football tournaments. Maybe, a tournament like the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association of USA) needs to be organized (either at states, regional or national level) in India for football. Then, the key players from this tournament could be auctioned to the highest bidding ISL and I-league teams. Apart from the players, the coaches would also get an opportunity to chisel their skills. Another area which needs considerable attention in football training is the focus on the nutritional needs (while respecting the various cultural and religious beliefs). On the side of soft skills training, the players and coaches should be educated about responsible financial dealings. Finally, they should also be trained about the methods in which they should deal with media (be it social or traditional) both in context of praise and criticism.
More than ever, our players and team needs our support. In 2018, our Captain (Sunil Chetri) appealed to us to back our team. He did not ask us to stop criticizing whenever our team played poorly but requested us to be the 12th player which serves as a source of inspiration.
I believe that when a billion pray and 11 play, miracles happen.
By - Harsha Hazarika
Harsha Hazarika, is the Economic Affairs Analyst at the Embassy of Belgium in New Delhi.
Earlier, he had completed his Masters in International Relations from Webster University Global Systems. He is passionate about sports especially when it comes to football.