The biggest sporting event on the planet, the FIFA World Cup with an audience reach of 3.4 billion, leaves one billion Indians pondering once again over that old haunting question — will India ever play a football World Cup?

This time, the answer to such a question comes on an air of optimism primarily owing to the commercial success of Indian Super League (ISL), and the excitement it generates. One could see staunch optimists cling to an ‘irresistible’ fact of a sharp ascendance in India’s FIFA world rankings during the four years since the inception of ISL: from the worst-ever 171st position in 2014 to 97th position in 2018. Will Team India make it into the World Cup arena carried on the wings of its new professional football league?

The league factor

A peek into the global ranking of football clubs would reveal a correlation between a nation’s World Cup qualification and the existence of established football leagues with top-performing clubs. Europe and South America are clear examples, yet one could see a similar correlation in the rest of the world as well.

In the case of North America, the two footballing nations that qualified for the Russian World Cup — Mexico and Costa Rica — are both home to the top 15 football clubs in the continent. On the other hand, the two prominent North American countries that didn’t qualify — the US and Canada — have only ‘mediocre’ football leagues with low-ranking clubs. Though not as strongly correlated, a comparable pattern can also be seen in Asia and Africa. The African nations playing in Russia have some of the well-known football leagues and clubs. Fifteen out of the top 25 football clubs in Asia belong to those countries that qualified for the World Cup (South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan). However, it should be noted that a wealthy league with rapidly flourishing football clubs by no means guarantee a nation the World Cup entry. The ‘ridiculously rich’ Chinese Super League is perhaps the best example.

After the inception of the new professional league system in 2004, Chinese football clubs climb Asian rankings owing to the mega money deals with celebrity players. Last year, the Argentina striker Carlos Tevez became “the world’s highest paid footballer” when he signed the contract with a Shanghai-based club on a per week salary of $820,000.

A few months back, Guangzhou Evergrande — the top-notch Chinese club jointly owned by the e-commerce gaint Alibaba — was ranked fourth among the most economically powerful football clubs in the world.

Even though many Chinese Super League players from abroad are representing their national teams in Russia, China failed miserably to qualify for the World Cup. China’s breakdown at the qualifying round is a wake-up call to the fact that a wealthy football league by itself do not assure, perhaps even subvert, the building of a strong national team.

European club experience

If leagues and clubs are not the key to a strong national football team, is there another factor that identify countries that made an entry to the World Cup?

A persistent and pertinent observation that one can make is the presence of national team members playing in Europe, the so-called ‘Mecca of modern professional football’.

Except Saudi Arabia, the 2018 World Cup squads of all the 32 countries consist of at least five players (in most cases eight or more) playing for one of the European clubs. The English and Spanish clubs alone ‘supplied’ 205 players to the various national teams. “As a region that developed the ‘science’ of modern football, a lushful array of competitive clubs at all levels, and lately the emergence of a thriving business model in sports makes European leagues the best moulding kiln for technically proficient players. Footballers having exposure in European clubs almost seems like a prerequisite for building a World Cup team,” to quote Dr Jamil David, an academic and former faculty member at the University of Liverpool. Going back to the Chinese example, none of the players in the present Chinese national football team is currently playing for the European clubs.

No one would dispute that the Indian Super League has ignited a football passion in the country by providing Indian football the much-needed global appeal, professional ethos, and a sustainable economic base. However, looking at similar models across the globe there is no evidence that ISL alone can turn into a breeding ground for talented Indian footballers to play and gain experience in the European leagues. An affluent ISL may also woo brilliant Indian players from getting into renowned clubs. The sudden halt in the international club career of the first ever Indian footballer to play in the UEFA Europa League is worth discussing here.

ISL — a double edged sword

East Bengal goal keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu hit the headlines in 2014 when he signed a full time contract with Stabæk, a first-division club based in Norway.

In 2017, Sandhu returned back to India, after declining another offer from Europe, to join Bengaluru FC following the biggest transfer deal in club’s history on a contract which will last till 2023. Sandhu, who is one of the best goalkeepers in India and the only player in the current national football team to have a European elite league experience, recently revealed that he earn more playing ISL than in Europe.

There is a reasonable chance for India to qualify for the 2026 World Cup as FIFA has decided to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, increasing the slot of Asian countries from the present four to eight. Yet, until it transforms into a tool that sharpens the nation’s football talents through European club experience, the Indian Super League cannot be counted upon as a springboard from which we can take our football aspirations to new heights.

Sajan is a social anthropologist trained in Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim.