For all of us who watched Bayern Munich’s demolition of the Indian football team this week, a few things stood out. Firstly, the audience had come to watch Bayern, and not the Indian national squad — perhaps understandably. A full-strength Bayern team was a privilege to watch, and the methodical beat-down that they laid on team India was somewhat preordained. However, had Baichung Bhutia not been part of the squad, it would be difficult for most football fans to even name any other member of the squad.
Simply put, club and national football in India is in dire straits, and there seem to be limited opportunities for the Indian football team to make a positive splash any time soon. The league culture in India has not gained much traction, and the qualitative gaps between clubs in India and any other football league of note seem too wide to bridge in the short term.
Yet, simultaneously, football-watching is rapidly becoming part of metropolitan culture — fed by the growing interest and availability of European club football, as well as FIFA events such as the European championships and the World Cup. Among non-unique viewers, football is the clear-cut number two sport in terms of viewership. And, as Indian cricket’s popularity and cultural power diminish – through a combination of overkill and abysmal performances such as we’re being treated to Down Under right now – football is within reach of becoming the most popular and lucrative sport in India.
International clubs realise this, and are flooding the market with initiatives – bars, “friendly” matches, coaching tie-ups – to tap young viewers in one of the world’s largest markets. In any for-profit initiative in sports, merchandising and licensing is the biggest source of revenue, and football jerseys in India sell like hot cakes, as do other exorbitantly priced equipment and accessories. The I-League, and even the IPL, hasn’t yet bitten fully into this segment, and due to the sophisticated nature of licensed merchandise in European clubs, quality and quantity far exceed anything that an Indian club could match.
And, if you think that the average young fan will be sporting team India jerseys, or those of any Indian club, think again. Unless international players – either active or retired – become part of the I-league, the money, the fans and the pop culture attention will all stay away. It’s a lot cooler to discuss Messi, Torres, and Kaka than what happened at JCT vs Mohun Bagan. Unless, that is, someone like Messi were actually to come on loan to a club like Bagan, and jerseys with his name and number – but in the maroon-and-green – became available.
It’s a major cultural shift: football has probably become the urban pastime of choice for those children looking to start playing a cool sport. The coolness factor comes from the exposure to European professional football (especially that pop-culture behemoth, the English Premier League), and, even more importantly, from access to cool stuff — the high-quality collaterals that the commercialised professional clubs churn out.
And, of course, to be a football fan, you don’t have to play it — in fact, very few opportunities exist for recreational football. But, you can still be part of innumerable fantasy leagues, you can celebrate your adopted team’s victory at a friend’s place or in a bar, and, above all else, you can wear and display your allegiance.
Yet, even as football takes over the cultural space we dedicate to sport, Indian football itself remains entrenched at the bottom. It’s hard to blame audiences for disinterest; a world ranking in the 160s means India would cause a major upset were it to defeat Grenada, the Bahamas, Belize, Moldova, or Curacao.
There needs to be some level of success at the international level for Indian football to actually develop a fan following. And this won’t be easy at all, given that, unlike cricket or hockey, we are competing against the world’s sporting Goliaths. Unless the Indian football team at least makes it to the World Cup at some point soon, Indian football is more likely than not to remain the unfortunate adopted stepchild of European club football.
We will continue to witness, therefore, an interesting adoption of a foreign, globalised cultural strain to which we ourselves have little to contribute. A football fan would be hard-pressed to name more than five Indian football players in the last two decades; imagine the average Indian’s plight. Even today, the Indian team is battling to stay competitive with football titans such as Mongolia, Nepal and East Timor. Worse, there are very few future Indian football legends on the horizon, if any.
Watching football is here to stay and grow — watching Indian football, not so much. Unless, that is, something changes in how the sport is managed, and soon.
The writer is a sports attorney at J Sagar Associates. These views are personal.
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