The slip between the Cup…

Vijay Lokapally

BLink_Fifa world cup 2014.eps

Every four years we wonder why India doesn’t figure in world football, before returning our adoring gaze to an Argentinian or Brazilian or Spanish triumph telecast live on TV

The World Cup is here. The football extravaganza that has the world in its thrall will leave educational institutions and workplaces grappling with thin attendance. Indeed, this will be the most glorious month or so for the couch potato. Parents will sulk as children stay up for late-night telecasts that leave them bleary-eyed for next day’s school. In some countries this passion acquires manic proportions, with workers going on month-long leave. Football merchandise, including everything from T-shirts and shorts to boots and socks in various national colours will be snapped up by fans in all age groups.

Of course, this frenzy is not for all. There are football lovers. And there are football haters. But we Indians are essentially football watchers. Once every four years, we take serious stock of the state of the game in the country. We wonder why we don’t figure in the World Cup. If Ivory Coast, Honduras, Angola, Togo can, why can’t we? The country does not even qualify for the Asian Games. This is the reality.

I was among an 80,000-strong audience at the Nehru Stadium in 1986 when Bochum Club from Germany arrived to play a series of matches. It was 90 minutes of entertainment, basically an annihilation of the home team, and all we gained from that match was a striker named Anadi Barua. He scored a sensational goal in that match; “From zero angle,” as footballer Ghaus Mohammed, a reserve for that match, reminds me.

In later years, we had clubs like Sao Paola, PSV Eindhoven and Bayern Munich coming, but the result was the same. The Indian selection was pummelled, and the demoralisation was pronounced through the ranks. In the process, fans of Indian football, a rapidly sinking tribe, became crestfallen.

According to acclaimed football scribe Jaydeep Basu, author of the superbly written Stories from Indian Football, the malady is widespread. “The infrastructure is still primitive. Worst is the rapidly declining number of local playgrounds across the country. State governments are mute spectators. There’s no backing for local tournaments in the countryside, which used to be the backbone of talent hunts. Indian football would remain where it is or might go further down. An indigenous blueprint is needed. Copy-pasting the FIFA and AFC manuals won’t take us anywhere.”

We only applaud and cheer; not Indian football, not from the stadium. We participate in an Argentinian or Italian or Brazilian or Spanish triumph from the comfort of home. Former India coach Bob Houghton was critical of these football telecasts. They are unlikely to improve the state of Indian football because, according to Houghton, they are only “illusions” and harmful to the “growth” of football in India.

As Basu explains, “Except in a few pockets, Indian football falls in the ‘disorganised sector’. Unlike in archery or boxing, a nation’s success in football largely depends on a mass movement. A majority of the State associations are non-functional and have failed miserably to take advantage of the general enthusiasm of youngsters towards the game. The national body has a severe cash crunch and it is more involved in cosmetic changes like setting up a few academies in metro areas.”

Cosmetic changes indeed. Foreign clubs come to India with an agenda, to promote their membership and merchandise. There was a time when busloads of football fans in Delhi would make a beeline for the Ambedkar Stadium to watch the local stars play in the DCM and Durand tournaments. Then came the 1982 World Cup in Spain, with some of the matches telecast live; Zico won our hearts. But it harmed Indian football owing to the unfavourable comparisons.

The 1986 World Cup, beamed from Mexico, created new heroes with the sublime Diego Maradona becoming a household name. Posters of Paolo Rossi, Roger Milla, Gary Lineker, Mario Kempes, Jorge Valdano, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Baggio, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Andres Iniesta, David Villa adorned our walls. Figures like Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri blurred over the years, in an impeccable reflection of the state of Indian football.

It is one thing to be a fan. Quite another to be a supporter! Indian football needs supporters, the infrastructure to develop into a football nation, the sponsors and the talent pool. What can you say when the final of the national championship kicks off in searing heat because that is the only slot granted for live telecast by the national broadcaster, unmindful of the fact that there is no one watching, at the stadium or at home.

When it comes to football, we are a nation of watchers and applauders of foreign star-power. Or “pretenders”, as a yesteryear champion lamented. I once called ace striker Subhash Bhowmick for his views on the eve of a World Cup. “We don’t qualify to even discuss World Cup” — his acidic quip said it all. It is World Cup time again and, as we discover every four years, nothing has changed.

(The writer is deputy editor, sports, The Hindu)

Published on June 06, 2014
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