It would be fair to say that India is not known for its footballing endeavours. Languishing in 171st place in the FIFA World Rankings, in the past year alone the Indian national side have lost to the likes of Palestine and Nepal. If you were to ask the average person on the street to name their national side’s captain, they would be hard-pressed to give you an answer.
That is not to say that football is not popular in India. One Indian television report revealed that last year 155 million people living in India watched the Premier League. All top-tier English games are televised live in India, and according to Nitin Kukreta, president of India’s largest satellite television group Star India’s sports division, international tournaments and European leagues are extremely popular with Indian viewers.
The problem is clear: the investment in infrastructure is just not there. Not only is there a very limited number of qualified coaches in the country, but training facilities are scarce and useable pitches are far and few between. All of this means that young footballers who show promise are quickly deterred and disillusioned, forced to choose a more mainstream Indian sport such as Cricket or to focus their energies elsewhere entirely. Even those who do end up making it, enjoy little or no recognition, and the state of the national team is pitiful, as their ranking suggests.
Organisers of the Indian Super League are hoping to change this. The ten-week tournament came to an impressive and celebratory end this past weekend, with the Indian player Mohammed Rafique scoring the winner, and it seems to have ignited renewed interest in the sport. While the I-League is the country’s primary football competition, the ISL is on a whole different level.
A joint venture by Star India and global sporting events organiser IMG, as well as one of India’s most powerful business houses, the tournament has already done a great deal to increase the popularity of football in the country. Many superstars from world football have been brought in as players and coaches: Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pirès and Luis Garcia to name but a few. These “marquee” players, as they are called, help to raise the profile of the tournament, but are also there to teach and instruct their Indian teammates.
The ISL has been, by anyone’s standards, a great success, and it is certainly a positive for the sport in the world’s second-most populous country, but there is a feeling of superficiality that is hard to ignore.
Under the veneer of glitz and glamour the ISL is attempting to showcase, there are serious problems that are not being addressed. The abysmal state of the national team and of the infrastructure have already been highlighted, but there are many other issues that need to be dealt with. The I-League is a perfect illustration of this. While it is the country’s main football competition, the standard of play is below that of any of Europe’s lower-tier professional leagues.
There were many Indian youngsters who caught the eye in the ISL. Atletico de Kolkata’s winger Baljit Sahni being just one. However, how can players such as Sahni possibly progress if they must return to play in the subpar all-Indian teams? It is hard to see things improving without major investment and a great deal of time and patience.
There was a jubilant atmosphere at the conclusion of the ISL, with many already glimpsing a future where India might be able to compete on the world stage. At the moment, that dream seems a long way off. Just getting the national team into the top 100 will require immense effort and huge financial investment. If we are to take but one thing from this incredible footballing experiment, it is that India is prepared to give it a shot.
Photos / Pabak Sarkar, ArsenalFan700, Ludovic Péron and Mango Peel Media Services