Infamous for its ever-growing fondness for cricket, India has long been labelled a ‘sleeping giant’ when it comes to football. While cricket still continues to rule hearts, the past decade has witnessed the rise of football, challenging the supremacy of country’s most popular sport.
The lack of international stars and a mediocre quality of the games might have kept football in the shadows, but the advent of Indian Super League (ISL) has clearly struck a chord with the Indian youth. Ever since its inaugural season, ISL has been a major contributing factor behind football’s significant growth in terms of audience.
If numbers are anything to go by, more than 200 million unique viewers tuned in to watch the action on television in India, last year. On the other hand, Bengaluru FC’s rare feat of becoming the first Indian club to reach the 2016 AFC Cup final further propelled the number of football fans in the country.
Today, when you walk into a pub on the weekends, irrespective of your love for football, the fanfare around is bound to bring out the footballer in you. From the scintillating El Clasicos to fierce Manchester derbys, Indian football fans celebrate the victories of foreign clubs and worship their stars like their own – this despite not even stepping foot in their city or country.
We are neither afraid to pledge allegiance to the overseas giants, nor there is any hesitation in proving our club loyalties. But, such has been our helplessness that while revelling in the success of a foreign club; many of us are often left wondering what it would really feel like to celebrate the triumph of an Indian club or the national team in international circuit.
While those questions have remained unanswered all this while, the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not just to the footballers, but also to the fans who have dearly waited to cheer for their country on the world stage, in the sport’s biggest event.
History In The Making
Ever since the advent of FIFA World Cup in 1930, the Indian football team has found itself missing out on football’s mega event. It’s not like we’ve never qualified for the tournament; in fact, India was set to feature in the 1950 World Cup as a result of the withdrawal of all of their scheduled opponents.
However, AIFF – India’s governing body – decided against sending the team to the World Cup on the pretext of high travel cost, lack of practice time, team selection issues and valuing the Olympics over the FIFA World Cup. Since then, Indian fans have been forced to support foreign nations in the coveted tournament. But, not anymore.
On Friday, Amarjit Singh Kiyam will etch his name in the history books for a feat every Indian footballer captain – past, present and future – will envy. The young Manipuri midfielder will lead the Indian team to their first football World Cup at any level when they lock horns with the US in New Delhi.
Inspiration For Youth
Not very long ago, Indian football meant Bengal, Goa and Kerala – three states where the passion for the game rivals that on view in Latin America. But, it is the north-eastern states – whose citizens still face much discrimination in many parts of the country – that have become the new hotbed for football in India.
The bulk of the under-17 squad come from the region, with Manipur accounting for as many as eight players. While they might be divided by regions, the Indian squad is united by their humble backgrounds and a common dream of overcoming poverty through football.
The Indian captain is the son of a fish-seller, while defender Jitendra Singh’s father is a watchman. Anwar Ali – India’s first-choice defender from Punjab – used to graze cattle during his school days. Defender Sanjeev Stalin’s mother sells clothes on a footpath in Bengaluru. Indian u-17 side’s posterboy Jeakson Singh had to leave his hometown (Manipur) to travel all the way to Chandigarh to work on his skills.
All these players went through their own hardships to reach where they are today – even if it’s not an exponential rise in Indian football. Capable of inspiring the youngsters, their journey – which has only begun – is pretty much the same as that of Cristiano Ronaldo who also used football to overcome his impoverish life.
Small Step, But A Giant Leap
“It’s a small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong’s famous quote would contextually be ringing true when the Indian team begins their FIFA World Cup campaign against US. For the 21-member Indian squad, it will be a small but significant step in their careers but for an expectant nation which has only dreamt about fielding a team in the showpiece event, it will arguably be a giant leap towards realising its dream of competing in the senior World Cup.
Cynics may dismiss their outing as a tournament of children and may even deride the team if they don’t manage to make it through the group stages – something which seems likely. But the exposure on the big stage against the best in the business is crucial for players to dream big, grow the game, gain crucial experience as well as improve football facilities and following in the country – something New Zealand have done over the years.
In 1997, the Kiwis participated in the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the very first time. But, theirs was a forgetful outing. They were mauled 0-4 by Mali, 0-5 by Mexico and ultimately 0-13 by Spain in their group games. After the group stage, the debutants were placed 16th with no goals scored and a whopping 22 goals allowed.
While the Kiwis were surely left red-faced by the end of the tournament, their outing was undoubtedly a stepping stone for bigger to follow in the sport. Since 1997, New Zealand has taken part in six editions (before this year’s in India) and has managed to reach knock-out stages twice. And, that’s exactly what India will aim to achieve with this tournament.
India Is Already A Winner
There may be doubts about the chances of country’s national side to prove its mettle in the tournament, but there’s none about the importance of this mega event in the growth of football in India. Thanks to the tournament, India managed to scrape through the youth system to find a group of the best young talents currently available in the country.
After a long process of building the 21-member Indian squad, the young guns were provided adequate training facilities and much-needed exposure by the overseas trips to Germany, Iran, Spain, Russia and South America where they played over 50 matches in the build-up to the World Cup at home.
With the AIFF already expressing its interest to host the U-20 World Cup in 2019, these players – even if they fall short on performance in the U-17 event – will surely be more competitive and in a much stronger position by then to make the nation proud. On the other hand, the biggest legacy of the World Cup will undeniably be the infrastructure it has to help in improving or building up.
Six venues – New Delhi, Kolkata, Navi Mumbai, Kochi, Goa and Guwahati – will host the event in the country where infrastructure for sports – other than cricket – has been a major issue. With huge investments from the administration aiding these cities and another 26 state-of-the-art training facilities recently developed across the nation, it’s safe to say that the football aspirants will surely benefit from the upcoming tournament.
Yes, it’s an under-17 event. And, yes, some of the biggest names in international football are missing, raising doubts on the level of competition. But, beggars can’t be choosers. After all it’s a World Cup – a coveted stage that has eluded India for 87 years.
So as our young brigade begin their historic World Cup campaign, we call out every Indian football enthusiast to shed their club loyalties and unite in support of the ‘Blue Cubs’ – not just for them, but also for all those individuals who have ever complained about their country’s inability to reach football’s biggest spectacle on the planet.
Photo: © BCCL (Main Image)