The Indian Football Team has come a long way from almost getting in the the FIFA World Cup in 1950 to having its own Super League. Getting a spot into the FIFA World Cup is a dream for every fan and it is without a doubt the biggest and the most prestigious football tournament in the world.
In terms of viewership, the World Cup gathers more views than the Olympic Games. The 2006 FIFA World Cup Final between France and Italy that took place at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany on 9 July 2006 was viewed by 715.1 million people, roughly a tenth of the entire population of the planet.
All around the world, people are united to watch football matches that are more than simple matches, but battles for the honor of their nation. Even when a country is not participating, their people watch them to support their favorite football stars, the quality of the game and standard of competitiveness.
Even though India has never participated in the coveted tournament, the FIFA World Cup 2018 held in Russia gathered around 193 million viewers across the entire tournament. This shows the level of popularity in our country for a sport we have never entered as a playing nation.
What if we tell you that India once managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup back in 1950, which was scheduled to be hosted by Brazil, but India refused due to lack of Football Boots known as Studs.
Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) the governing body of the sport globally imposed a rule which banned players from playing barefoot. Bizarre right? What if we tell that story is fake?
India’s exit from the FIFA World Cup
The 1950 FIFA World Cup was the fourth edition of the FIFA World Cup was scheduled to be held in the summer of 1950 in Brazil. The Philippines, Indonesia and Burma all withdrew from Asian region resulting in a direct qualification for India into the final tournament.
During our incisive research, we found that the fact that Indian players were not allowed to play barefoot or the team had no money to buy their players the proper football kits was not true.
Sailen Manna, then captain of India and arguably the best footballer India has ever produced, mentioned that the story of the team not being allowed to play because they wanted to play barefoot was not at all true.
In fact,the barefoot story was merely an excuse to cover up the real reasons the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided against travelling to Brazil.
The real reason behind their withdrawal from the tournament was actually lack of travel costs, practice time and also the AIFF valuing the Olympics greater than FIFA World Cup.
This was the closest India ever came to qualifying for a World Cup. Despite failing to participate in the FIFA World Cup, the period between 1950-1970 was considered the “golden period” of India as a footballing nation.
In 1951, India won their first Asian Games Trophy. Hosted in India, in their gold medal match they defeated Iran by 1-0 by the help of Sahu Mewalal’s goal. In 1956 Summer Olympics hosted by Australia, India finished in the fourth place, their best performance in Olympics till date. In Asian Games 1962,India team again won the golden medal by defeating South Korea 2-1.
Decline of Indian Football (1970-2000)
India went from being the Asian Champions twice inside a decade to not able to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition. India who were once on the verge of playing the FIFA World Cup were now ranked 143 in FIFA Rankings. Even though they were on a decline in the continental stage, the Indian team still managed to assert their place as the best team of South Asia.
They won the 1985 and 1987 South Asian Games. The team went on to win the the inaugural South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFF) in 1993. By the end of the century they had won SAFF Championship thrice, the latter two coming in 1997 and 1999.
Change of Century and Generation (2001-2010)
Change of century did not bring much to the Indian Football in terms of major tournaments and silverware, but saw some of the new generation players like Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri who went on to get contracts with professional clubs outside India.
Chhetri who currently is the most capped player and the all-time leading goal scorer, played in the Major League Soccer(MLS) and Sporting CP of Portugal. Even though India were showing some promise in terms of quality of football and infrastructure, the FIFA ranking dipped to an all-time low of 171.
India qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, their first Asian Cup appearance in 27 years. India lost all three of their group games including a 4-0 defeat to Australia.
Even though India were showing some promise in terms of quality of football and infrastructure, the FIFA ranking dipped to an all-time low of 171 by then end of 2014.
2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup – India’s participation as a Host Nation.
In 2013, India along with Azerbaijan, Republic of Ireland and Uzbekistan submitted their bid for the hosting rights for the U-17 level of FIFA World Cup.
Finally, on 5th of December, FIFA announced that India had won the hosting rights of 2017 FIFA World Cup making India the first Asian country to host U-17 World Cup since 2013 when it was previously hosted by United Arab Emirates.
The FIFA World Cup was considered a success because of the viewership, even though India failed to qualify for the knock out stages and was out of the tournament in the group stages.
Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, became the first and only player from India to score in a FIFA major Tournament. He scored against Colombia in an eventual 2-1 defeat.
The attendance was recorded at 1,347,133 which was better than China, when they hosted in 1985 where it was 1,230,976 and even surpassing the 2011 U-20 World Cup in Colombia which was attended by 1,309,929 people.
Indian Super League helped in transforming the infrastructure of football in India. The change was visible and the Indian National Team climbed upto 97 in FIFA Rankings in 2018.
“India – A sleeping giant of World Football”
Back in 2006, then President of FIFA Sepp Blatter described India as a ‘sleeping giant in the world of football. Even though India lost its pace in competing with the European and South American nations in terms of football, their recent run of form has been somehow encouraging.
In 2019, they defeated Thailand by 4-1, making it their biggest win at the Asia Cup, and their first in 55 years. Currently, they are fighting for their place in 2022 FIFA World Cup which is scheduled to be hosted in Qatar.
Reasons for the lack of growth in Indian Football.
Exposure and infrastructure at grassroot football
There is a lack of good football academy at the grassroot level. Every middle school and high school in the country has their own football team, but the team is never backed financially.
Just imagine,India, a country with a population of more than 1.5 billion people can’t produce 11 World-class football players.
Support of parents at the ground level will surely help India become the giant they are considered sleeping.
Lack of marketing of Indian Football
Football being the biggest sport globally, and they market it in that way. AIFF, the governing body of football in India has not made significant efforts to promote their lower leagues or even I-League for that matter.
However, this has changed a lot since the emergence of Indian Super league.
Political and Public Support
Government with the help of financial backing play a big role in taking the sport to the next level in country. Unfortunately, Football was not adequately funded and unmonitored corruption killed the game from inside.
Fans are the reason the sports industry flourishes, more fans means more sponsorship. Due to negligence and lack of support India is considered as a Single-sport country.
Rise of Indian Super League (ISL).
The league was founded on 21st October 2013 with the aim of revamping the sport of football in India and its exposure of the sport in the country. The I-League which was India’s top tier league in terms of Football in India before the emergence of ISL was not popular between the football enthusiasts due to lack of economical backing and poor marketing.
The Indian Super league was hit since its first season gathering 429 million viewers across India. They achieved the milestone of being the highest average stadium attendance for any football League in Asia, this surpassing the J-League of Japan and the Chinese Super league.
The ISL also ranked fifth in terms of highest average attendance around the world. The only leagues with a better average were, Bundesliga, EPL, La Liga and Serie A.
In the end, India still is just a shadow of its somewhat glorious past, they may be taking baby steps in terms of being a Superpower in Football, but change is eminent and we will surely see them competing in a FIFA World Cup soon!