Illustration by Suneesh K.
Pity the lot of the Indian football enthusiast. World Cups come and go as do AFC Cups; Champions League titles are won and lost; players from across the world constantly make their mark in the leagues in Europe as the world’s most popular sport constantly seeks and finds new heroes. In all this, the one constant is India’s continuing underperformance both as a team and at the individual level.
Indeed, at a time when sports in the country has been going through a purple patch, football has been the one sore spot. India is a lowly 106 on FIFA’s ranking of countries, behind teams like Cyprus, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau and just above Sierra Leone and Kosovo. Nor is this some regional aberration. For those who think that Europe and Latin America are the playgrounds of the winners in the game, Asian giants Iran and Japan are both in the top 25 of the global rankings.
At the recent SAFF tournament played between just five South Asian nations, India drew with both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka before going on to beat Nepal for the title. The win shouldn’t be any consolation since all the teams are ranked way below India. Playing against better opponents in the World Cup qualifiers, India failed to beat Afghanistan and were trounced 0-6 by the United Arab Emirates. Sure there was the occasional spark as in its goalless draw with Qatar, hosts of the next World Cup in 2022. But that much-hyped draw came over two years ago. Since then there has been little to cheer about.
While one sport can’t be compared to another, given its rich history in the country and the massive support it still enjoys, the football team’s shocking underperformance is particularly galling. Indeed, the surprise is how the game continues to be so popular despite the national teams not having won anything of note in decades. Thus, the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup hosted by India, the first time the country hosted such an event, was touted as the most successful ever, with attendance climbing to a record 1,347,133 beating the 1,230,976 that turned up to watch the 1985 edition in China. Recognizing the potential of the market in the country, the 2022 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup will also be held in India.
Other countries have used such grassroot events to fuel their growth in the game. Even in India, the recent success of its men’s hockey team comes on the back of performances at the junior level. The last three Junior World Cups, in fact, have all been hosted by India which also won the last of them in 2016. It is no coincidence that the revival at the senior levels came along with the hosting of the tournament in India for the first time in 2013.
Indian football players are a privileged lot as compared to those from many other countries. Those like Sunil Chhetri and Thoi Singh have become household names and have lucrative playing contracts. They could serve as inspiration for other younger players even if the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Mohamed Salah or Paul Pogba appear to be from another planet.
For inspiration, they need to look no further than the continent’s highest ranked team Iran, which created a sensation at the last World Cup in Russia beating one of the tournament’s favorites, the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal in its group game. The team’s success can only be ascribed to adrenaline and passion for the game. The game’s progress in the country has been replete with problems. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, football, like other sports, was banned since the clergy deemed it to be against Islamic teachings. Then again, after a fitful start, the country was banned by FIFA during the 10 year Iran-Iraq war, when the squad was prohibited by the government from playing on neutral grounds. But since it returned to the global stage at the 1998 World Cup in France, where it beat the US, there has been no looking back. The team has qualified for three of the next five editions of the World Cup.
Six years ago the Indian Super League brought a level of financial security to Indian footballers. But along with all the accompanying razzmatazz, it was also expected to drive better performance.
What Indian football needs is more international exposure. That's the only way the players can improve their game. For that, however, they need to be willing to test themselves in alien conditions.