Cricket has always been regarded as the favourite son of India in the field of sports. Our country is filled with passionate, die hard fans who idolise some of the players of the Indian Cricket team. But now, football has been growing in popularity, especially among the Indian youth. The Indian cricket team is regarded as one of the best(if not the best) teams in the sport, but Indian football is light years away. Sitting at No.132 in the FIFA World Rankings, Indian football has a long way ahead if it hopes to dethrone cricket as India’s most adored sport. This article brings to light the current situation in Indian football and what the future could hold for the ‘beautiful game’ in India.
The Indian Super League (ISL)was first started in 2013 as a joint venture by IMG and the Reliance Foundation to promote football in India. With three seasons done, the ISL has attracted a huge number of supporters. The influx of various foreign players including legends like Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Robert Pires has been a major boon for the league. The Indian players are given the opportunity to gain valuable insights from these seasoned professionals. Although the inception of the ISL has not resulted in an immediate change of fortune for the Indian national team, it is expected to pay dividends in the long run. There have also been other leagues which have been formed in addition to the ISL, for instance the Premier Futsal league which was introduced last year by footballing legend, Luis Figo. The Futsal League hosted some of the finest legends of the game including the Brazilian great Ronaldinho. Bringing in the likes of Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs to promote football in India is sure to attract a large number of youth to take up the sport.
The 17th edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup will be held in India. This is a huge testament to the fact that Indian football is growing in leaps and bounds across all sectors. The run up to the tournament in October will see a special program implemented called the ‘Mission 11 Million’. The program is a joint venture by the All India Football Federation and the Indian government to promote football among the youth of our nation. The program has already reached more than 2000 schools across the country and is expected to grow even further.Tournament Director of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Javier Ceppi remarked, “This is a very important landmark. Mission 11 Million is what will truly change the future of Indian football and the way the sport is perceived by kids all around the country”.If things do go according to plan , we could witness a footballing revolution in our country.
While the introduction of the ISL has been welcomed by most of the footballing faithful in India, it has proved to be a setback for the I-League. The I-League is the premier footballing league recognised by FIFA in India. Because of the ISL, the I-League has suffered enormously in terms of crowd support, sponsorship partners and quality. The number of teams in the I-League has reduced from eleven to nine due to the introduction of the ISL. There have been talks over a possible merger of the ISL with the I-league. Several footballing icons including Sunil Chhetri have publicly stated their desire for a merger, claiming that it would benefit the players and the national team immensely. However due technical issues the merger could not be implemented this year. Mr. Praful Patel , President of the AIFF remains optimistic that a merger is on the cards.
It is upsetting, that a country with a population of around 1.2 billion can’t produce eleven football players that can compete with the global superpowers of football. Indian football has remained dormant for too long now. It is high time our country and the various authoritative figures realise the untapped potential among the youngsters. The ISL and the Premier Futsal will do its bit in promoting football in our country. The FIFA U-17 World Cup will serve as a huge step for the development of the game in India, especially among the youth of our country. But that alone wont suffice because we need better systems, more grass-root programs, state of the art infrastructure and much more. If these challenges are met, the prospect of India qualifying for the FIFA World Cup wont be just another pipe dream anymore.