Football needs a kick-off
Professional management and marketing will revitalize the game that, with hockey, had a head start at Independence
by HARPAL SINGH BEDI
THE good news, when it comes to football in India, is that some of the world’s top clubs such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Liverpool are opening academies in the country. The bad news is that nobody is interested in domestic soccer. The match between low-ranked EPL team Blackburn Rovers and Pune FC drew over 7,000 spectators while the third oldest tournament in the world – the Durand Cup, played in New Delhi – was a virtual washout this year.
India generates the second largest television viewership for the English Premier League in Asia, after China, but the sad fact is that there are no takers for the I-League or other major tournaments in the country. A Pune-based industrial house has bought Blackburn Rovers, a club facing relegation from the EPL, at enormous cost while six top clubs in the country have been disbanded in recent times because the owners refused to dig deep into their pockets to sustain them.
The Indian football market has acquired a global image and leading clubs are willing to visit and play here but the country’s own standing has slumped to 146 in the FIFA ranking. In Asia, it ranks 26 – sandwiched between Singapore (25) and Hong Kong (27).The population of these two is less than half of Delhi’s.
“It is indeed paradoxical that while the upper middle class youngsters in the country are more inclined towards football, their interest is in European soccer and they know more about EPL than their own I-League,” says veteran commentator and football historian Novy Kapadia. “It is amazing that, while big houses are turning away from Indian clubs, citing lack of interest and decline in spectators and TV viewership, they are making a beeline to own foreign clubs.” The disbanding of iconic clubs like JCT, Phagwara and Mahindra United, Mumbai in a span of 14 months came as a shock. The owners said they had become financially unviable. Ironically, five of the six clubs – Century Rayon, Mafatlal SC, Tata SC, Orkay Mills and Mahindra United – were based in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. Another club from the region, Fransa of Goa, also shut shop.
The total investment in all these clubs was much less than what Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar earn from Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians, respectively, in the IPL. Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) vice president Narender Bhatia refuses to buy the argument that running a top level club has become too expensive. “If you are talking of local clubs, then I will agree that it has become a prohibitive business but this logic does not apply to the big clubs. If they (top industrial houses) are prepared to pay millions of dollars for cricket players for their teams in the IPL, they can easily afford to run a decent professional football team at far less expense,” he says.
Ironically, the uneven structure of Indian football came to the fore when JCT announced its closure on the same day that Nigerian striker Odafe Okolie signed a record Rs 1.5-crore annual deal with Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru player Xavier Vijay Kumar was signed for Rs 90 lakh by Churchill Brothers. JCT’s annual budget was around Rs 2 crore.
India generates the second largest television viewership for the English
Premier League in Asia, after China, but the sad fact is that there are no takers for the I-League.
Indian football peaked in the 1950s and ’60s when the national team won the Asian Games (1951, 1962), finished runners - up in the highly competitive Merdeka Cup in 1959 and 1964, and runners-up in the 1964 Asia Cup. India finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. India was the first Asian nation to make it to the last four of the Olympics, beating Australia 4-2 in the quarter-final. Centre forward Neville D’Souza became the first and till date only Asian to score a hat-trick in the Olympics.
DR Shafiq-ur-Rehman Durrani, an international relations expert based in Bhopal who is also a soccer buff, feels that hockey and football had a head start after Independence but failed to sustain that advantage. “We should stop comparing every other sport with cricket. There is no use demonizing cricket just because it sells. For that the Indian cricket board should be applauded, not criticized.
“Why is the All India Football Federation (AIFF) not able to market the game? Its president, Praful Patel, has the business acumen. See the deplorable condition of the football stadium in Mumbai. It sums up the condition of the game in the country.”
The lack of proper infrastructure is a big hurdle in the promotion and development of the game. “No Indian club has its own stadium. Even Mohun Bagan and East Bengal lease their grounds from the Army,” points out Kapadia.
The AIFF’s own figures tell a sorry story. The average attendance for I League matches, spread over six months, was dismal – 3,139. And this figure is the result of 80,000 people turning up for the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match in Kolkata. In the past five editions of the National League, the average crowd has never been more than 4000 per match. Last month, the match in New Delhi between the country’s top two clubs, East Bengal and Salgaocar, was watched by less than 3,000 people.
The situation has changed dramatically in just 10-12 years. In 1997, the KBLFederation Cup semi-final match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal was watched by a record 1,31,000 spectators in Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium.
Crowds of over 50,000 would watch matches in the Federation Cup, the Nehru Cup in Kolkata, Kochi and Goa, the Durand Cup and the now-defunct DCM tournament.
As Kapadia explains, the AIFF gets a half-millon dollars’ annual grant from the world soccer body and has a 10-year deal worth Rs 700 crore with Reliance-IMG, and another lucrative deal with Panasonic for international matches.
“The AIFF spent a whopping Rs 16 crore on training the team for the Asia Cup final round in Qatar early this year. It is also a good paymaster (coach Bob Houghton was paid $30,000 per month) and so far it has received 70 applications for the vacant post of national coach.” Indian football is at a cross-roads. The country has talent and a huge football following. “The need of the hour is professional management, better marketing and broad-basing of the game,” says Kapadia. g