The former national game of the country is rising to popularity again, thanks to the initiatives by private sponsors of national leagues.
Once the national sport of the country, over the years, football has lost its popularity to the country’s most popular sport – cricket. It continues to remain the second most popular sport in the country, but, receives very little media attention and resultant public attention and awareness.
In one of the first home games of Chennai City Fc in the Hero I- League, 2016-17, the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium remained scantily populated as compared to the roaring crowds during Hero ISL matches here, in the city. “It is the maiden season of the Chennai City FC in the I-League and the team is performing pretty well against outstanding players like Sunil Chetri,” said Mir Hussain Ali, who plays for his college SRM Vadapalani.
The League itself is one of the oldest in the country being held for about two decades now, but, is less popular than the newborn Indian Super League (ISL). “Football is not as popular as cricket as it is not marketed as much as cricket,” says Kavin Raja a football and player fromChennai, on the diminished popularity of the game. “But with leagues like ISL coming up, football is gaining popularity and is reaching out to the grassroots which will in turn help in building the sport in the long run,” he added.
Popular in the North Eastern Regions of the Country, it is surprising that there is even a team for Blind Football in the country. However, gaining momentum over the years football is slowly rising back and gaining the recognition it held in the past, thanks to the participation and initiatives taken up by private organisations in the promotion of the game.
“There are many passionate players who work very hard but, there isn’t enough adoption of technological infrastructure to support them,” Raja added.
Coach and Referee Balaji seconds Raja, “There sufficient talent in the country but, there isn’t infrastructure available to support them,” he says. “In addition to the lack of infrastructure, there isn’t much recognition of the sport among the masses and hence, footballers do not receive much support,” he adds.
“Scouts from England come to our country and select Indian players, but, little is known about their selections and their achievement,” Raja says.
“The Indian Players do not get the sufficient exposure required, they might be the best in the Country but are nowhere near good by the International Standards,” says Khan, who has been playing professional football for about 12 years now. This is one of the reasons why Star Player Sunil Chetri, could not perform beyond a span of 20 minutes when played for the Portuguese Club in a European league match.
“You get better at the game with more practice and the number of matches you play, and to be able to do that you need the government, the Federation or a private sponsor such as Hero to conduct matches where one can hone and develop his skills,” he added
With the game becoming popular especially in the cities, it has led to the concept of pay and play. Where the teams pay to compete in a tournament and play against one another.
Despite the talent available, India has not made it to the list of the top football playing Nations in the World, this is primarily due to inadequate practice as a National team.
But, when it comes to government organised games, for the selection of the National Team, it happens annually in the various levels. The selections for the District matches are held, in these matches, players for the State team are scouted. The State team then compete with teams from other states and players for the National Team are picked from the various State teams in the National level Games. “Though the procedure is extensive and fair, as a team, the players have very little time to build a chemistry on the field and just when they are getting used to it, the teams are changed, leading to the process beginning all over again,” says Khan, stressing on the need of permanent players on the National team rather than changing the Team every year.
This procedure leaves the players exhausted and very little time to practice as a team for the International Games, thereby adversely affecting their performance and making it fall below international averages.
Balaji who had been to different countries as a referee says that one of the fundamental differences he finds is the attitude about the sport, the dedication displayed and the support it garners is far beyond what we see here. “I have seen many wonderful players drop out of coaching due to educational reasons and pressure from parents to focus on studies,” he says “Sports needs to be infused in our culture, until that, no matter how much government schemes and infrastructure is provided, it is difficult to retain players and guarantee performance,” he adds.
“The ISL is really helping in popularising the sport. The very aspect that Indian players are playing beside foreign players is appealing to the masses and is making a huge impact on the youngsters in the grassroots level,” channeledKhan says. “If this were to continue, we would definitely become one of the top nations in football in 10years from now,” he adds.
If the passion for the game is channelled with the adaption of technology and the sport is taken seriously, we would be able to not just provide players to European and other foreign teams, but would have an established team for our country as well.