Hosting the under-17 World Cup is a chance for India to become a football nation
On October 6, an Indian national football team will make its debut in a World Cup finals. India is hosting the under-17 World Cup finals, and our competition will include Brazil, Germany, Spain, Mexico, France, and England. India’s group contains the United States, Colombia, and Ghana. It will be an upset, maybe even a miracle, should we make it to the round of 16. The slim shoulders of these teenagers—Christians being fed to the lions of world football—will have to bear lightly the dead weight of Indian football’s failure, its considerable but inglorious history, its well-founded inferiority complex, and its recent revival as glitzy entertainment for the urban middle-class TV viewer. This new breed of Indian football fan, raised on cricketing success and a newly belligerent national mood, might not have much patience for failure.
India might be a footballing backwater but it has a distinguished history. The Durand Cup is one of the world’s oldest knockout tournaments, behind only the FA Cup and the Scottish Cup. In 1911 Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield, the world’s fourth oldest football tournament, playing barefoot against East Yorkshire Regiment. On the day, it was perhaps nothing more than a tweaked nose for the British empire, a rare opportunity for the subjugated to laugh at their oppressors; in retrospect it seems like a blow struck in the name of inevitable independence. Those 11 men were freedom fighters.
The big Calcutta clubs, Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting are faded aristocrats, living on century-old memories (well, nearly a century in East Bengal’s case) and fervently contested, if meaningless, local derbies. Though, as any football fan knows, local derbies, no matter the fallen status of the participants, are never meaningless. They are the lifeblood of the game, and local supporters, with their particular traditions—ilish or chingri?—are reminders of football’s parochial impetus, its communal pleasures. The global game may have left India behind, but when East Bengal plays Mohun Bagan in Kolkata who cares?
India, in any case, had long ago missed the boat at international level. In 1950, we qualified by default for the World Cup in Brazil—won eventually by Uruguay, beating the hosts in the final, the Maracanazo, a tragedy so calamitous that Brazil has won 5 World Cups and still mourns that defeat—but chose not to travel because of the expense, though FIFA offered to defray much of the cost. Still, with Asian football in its infancy, India was a considerable team in the ’50s and early ’60s before an abject fall.
Cricket is the game now, squatting over Indian sport like a malevolent toad. Football, particularly the Champions League, is a sport watched by the hip and urban, with little interest in the local game. Indian football’s heartland is Kolkata, Kerala, Goa and latterly the North East, but the popularity of televised English and European football has not led to a revival of the national league. Instead, a made-for-TV league, featuring washed-up Europeans and IPL-style theatrics, is paying its way into becoming the standard-bearers for local football. The money and investment are welcome but not the disregard for the Indian clubs that did exist, that had histories, supporters, and links to communities.
It is why success—or, realistically, noble failure—for the under-17 squad could be a turning point. Indian football is in the doldrums, but there is money and enthusiasm and the opportunity to revivify the game. For the players, the World Cup will also serve as a shop window. At least, some of the squad will hope they can impress enough to get themselves a trial at a club outside India—in Europe particularly, but also South Korea, Japan, China, the Gulf, Australia, and the United States.
For Indian football to establish itself at international level, we don’t need clubs magicked out of a hat, we don’t need cheerleaders in short skirts, we need players to leave India. And we need young players at home who have an opportunity to play in a serious competition. The Indian national team striker, Sunil Chhetri recently told the under-17 squad that he would gladly swap 15 years of his successful career for an opportunity to play at the World Cup. It’s that big an opportunity. Given the stakes, there has been too little build-up, too little opportunity to watch the team play. The All India Football Federation has to ensure that the stadiums are full(ish) and that India looks the part of World Cup hosts.
As for the team, well they have no big tournament experience. No one, including their Portuguese coach, Luis Norton de Matos, knows how they’re going to perform under pressure. In a pre-tournament warmup in Mexico they suffered heavy defeats against both the hosts and Colombia (who India will also meet in the World Cup) but earned a creditable draw against Chile. They’re being thrown in at the deep end. Let’s pray they find a way to swim.
This article was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.