India turned down the chance to play at the 1950 World Cup. It has punched below its weight in soccer ever since (Published in Al Jazeera America, 19 July, 2014)
In 1950, when the World Cup was last in Brazil, India should have been there. The three year-old nation was slotted in to Group C alongside Italy, Sweden, and Paraguay. India was set to become the first independent Asian country to participate in a World Cup.
But the Indian team didn’t travel to Brazil. The country’s puzzling withdrawal from the tournament is wrapped in mythology. One legend claims that FIFA insisted India’s players wear shoes, even though many Indian soccer players were used to playing barefoot. Refusing to be shod, the Indian team bowed out. Another story suggests that India couldn’t afford to send its team to Brazil. This, too, is a fallacy, since FIFA were prepared to meet much of the team’s travel expenses.
The truth is rather more startling. India’s soccer authorities simply didn’t recognize the importance of the competition. It seemed to them a vague tournament played half a world away, of far less significance than the Olympics. “We had no idea about the World Cup then,” Sailen Manna, the prospective captain of that 1950 team, told Sports Illustrated. “Had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger.” Citing “insufficient practice time” and disagreements over team selection, India withdrew. Given the chance to play in the World Cup, India shrugged its shoulders and let the opportunity pass by.
This decision remains the original sin of the management of the Indian game. Had India accepted the invitation, one can imagine an alternate history in which the country built on its strong foundations to become one of the more robust forces in Asian soccer. In the 1950s, India produced sides that were amongst the best in Asia. India won the gold medal for football in the 1951 Asian Games, and placed fourth ahead of Great Britain and Australia in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In 1953, the English Football Association picked Manna as one of the “top ten captains in the world.”
Six decades years later, Indians can only dream of being part of the tournament that has now become the most important sporting competition on the planet. Their team languishes at a lowly 154th place in the FIFA rankings. The position fluctuates from time to time but is a perennial source of humbling comparisons. India, a nation of over one billion people, sits below a host of microscopic island countries whose sum population would barely register as a suburb of a mid-tier Indian city.
Of course, there is no necessary correlation between population and success on the pitch – see, for instance, the achievements of countries such as Uruguay and Croatia, routine World Cup participants despite their small populations. But in India’s case, its behemoth size gives it a strange place in the landscape of global football; while the country is of tremendous appeal as a market for the sport, its prospects on the field remain bleak.
India’s current mediocrity in soccer runs counter to the larger narrative of its economic rise on the international stage. Since India embarked on a transformative program of liberalization in the early 1990s, the football team has declined precipitously in FIFA rankings, sinking from 100th in the world to as far down as 169th in November 2012. India is no longer even the best team in South Asia after being trounced by Afghanistan in the regional tournament last year.
And yet football’s popularity in India has never been greater. Second only to cricket, the sport has long roots in its bastions in Goa and Kerala and in the eastern state of West Bengal where club football has been played since the 19th century. Distinctly 21st century technologies have brought the sport into the living rooms and laptops of the growing middle class across the nation. Big European clubs vie for the allegiances of Indian viewers. An estimated 63 million Indians – roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom – have been staying up late into the night to watch the 2014 World Cup.
“If we have to identify new territories where football can be a better part of life then definitely it is the subcontinent, India, where they have 1.2 billion people,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in 2011, pronouncing the figure with no small amount of relish. “This is really a double market, not just a market for football but for the economy too. India is a real power.”
FIFA recently awarded India the 2017 Under-17 World Cup. The award has been broadly received as a fillip for Indian soccer, with the potential for breathing new life into the local game. The youth tournament will test the ability and resolve of Indian administrators to update existing infrastructure (without repeating the debacle of the grotesquely mismanaged 2010 Commonwealth Games). It will also train a degree of attention on much-neglected youth football in the country. In and of itself, that would be no small achievement.
Today, Indian fans are often incredibly well versed in the ins and outs of international football and the top European leagues. Comparatively few are familiar with their local teams in the national I-League. None harbour real hopes of seeing their country compete in the World Cup any time soon. For fans in India, the sport is increasingly the preserve of others, played elsewhere, to be enjoyed at a remove.
Traces of the old colonial relationship between the Indian periphery and the western metropole emerge; European football extracts the raw resources of viewers and commercial revenue, while domestic Indian soccer flounders, losing its potential audience to the brighter lights of Europe.
A month-long “Indian Super League” will launch later this year, modeled on the franchise format of cricket’s lucrative Indian Premier League. While its cricketing counterpart attracts the best players in the world, the Indian Super League promises faded stars like Arsenal legends Robert Pirès and Freddie Ljungberg. The league will no doubt draw the attention of some Indian viewers and commercial sponsors. But it seems unlikely to re-energize the regular domestic league or help nurture younger generations of footballing talent.
The necessary infrastructure of training facilities and youth academies remains threadbare at best. Though a few teams are trying to professionalize along the lines of European clubs, most domestic soccer is played in dilapidated grounds in front of meager crowds. Unlike Indian cricketers, few Indian footballers are household names (Sunil Chhetri, the national team captain, is probably the best known of the current crop). They toil in relative obscurity.
It is a shame that the national team is so little known within India. More so than the much-loved cricket team, India’s soccer players represent the astonishing diversity of the nation. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus line up together. Kashmiris from the Himalayan north play alongside Goans and Keralites raised on the coasts of the Arabian Sea, Bengalis from the east, Punjabis from the north-west, and many talented players from the marginalized north-east of the country. The roster tells a wider story about India than that of the cricket team, which is heavily drawn from the Gangetic heartland. With names like Clifford Miranda and Aiborlang Khongjee, the team represents an India rarely heard or seen.
It will remain unseen on the international stage for the foreseeable future. India failed to even reach the group stage of qualifying within Asia for the 2014 World Cup. India fell at the first hurdle to the United Arab Emirates, a country that boasts less than one percent of its population.