Why does India suck at football?
Football is demanding, challenging, risky and tribal. Is India too soft a country for football.
Voices Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - 05:30
By Pracharak India is rated #154 in the FIFA football rankings. There's one thing about being poor at a certain sport and another about being below Belize, Aruba, Malawi & Madagascar in the most popular sport in the world. The second populous country, the seventh largest country, oh and yes, the largest democracy but still #154 in the most followed sport in the world. And please, it's not the climate or cricket or the ranking system. India does not have one climate but has varied climatic conditions across the country. You could have a rowing competition in Kerala, cricket tournament in Maharashtra and a skiing competition in Kashmir. Plus, one quick look at the 153 countries above us, show us that climate is a bad excuse. Well, most say that Cricket killed football and all other sports. Multiple sports co-exist and co-excel in many countries including . . er . . India. Despite cricket's evil hold over the sporting scene in India, we seem to do decently well (relative to football) in a few other sports such as hockey, tennis, boxing, weightlifting etc. That's true for all countries. You have a very popular sport in the country and then there are sports that the country is reasonably good at. Ranking system is based on friendlies in which India doesn't participate much. Basically, India does not actively look to improve her FIFA football ranking. #154 is too damn insulting. Remember, I'm not talking about India winning the 2018 world cup in Russia. Probably, I'm talking about India qualifying for the world cup in my lifetime and I do plan to live long. Why do we suck at football? Here's my finding: India is not particularly good at demanding team contact sports because we do not have a culture of producing sportspersons. Cricket is an individual sport wrapped in the design of a team sport. A sport that relies on team effort doesn't necessarily mean it's a team sport in its true sense. It's like how you have a Davis Cup 'team'. Each player goes and does his/her best and that helps the team. And they don't even need to work together constantly during the course of the playing time. Hockey is a real team sport but it's not a contact sport. Yes there's contact in both cricket and hockey but that's not really the intentional part of the game. While hockey is one team sport we do reasonably okay, our best performances came two decades before and after the independence when the 'Team India' feeling was at its highest. Even since the 70s, Indian hockey started going downhill and now is in the state of just like any other serious team sport. Football is a different animal. It's a team sport like no other game where you need to play as one team technically, physically and mentally. Plus, it's a real contact sport. There would be pushing, there would be clash of the skulls, there would be crunching tackles and there would be blood. To a great extent, in football, both the sport and following is tribal. The intended and unintended violence in the sport unconsciously shapes the mind of the players as well as the supporters. In short, it is certainly not a gentlemen's game. Bodyline series in cricket is considered to be a deadly episode of the sport. Most football fans would struggle to understand why that was called deadly. Football has sometimes been a bloody sport. Players have been permanently injured or incapacitated or even dead. Midfielders run upto 13 kilometres in the 90-minute period (highest for any sport). To put that in perspective, the world record in a 21-km half marathon is about an hour. Football is demanding, challenging, risky and required high energy levels. Perhaps India is too soft a country for football. In a way I believe the national psyche of our country doesn't quite suit football. Look at the sports in which we are faring well. Rajyavardhan Rathore won a medal in shooting but that's purely an individual passion. We have had good tennis players like Paes, Bhupathy etc but still it's not a people sport. Hockey is neither the national game nor not the national passion. Take Punjab out of Indian hockey, you can't name anyone in the team, leave alone the bench. The only sport that can be called the true people sport in India is indeed cricket. Cricket by nature is slow, stop and start, largely risk-free and an individual sport in the disguise of a team sport. Well, I have considered the T20 format too when I wrote the last sentence. Is it a coincidence that Kerala and West Bengal are crazy about football? Only in those two states, football is a people's sport. It's played and followed extensively so much that cricket is a poor second in those states. But why these two states? Why not some other states? You'll get the answer if you look for what else is common in those two states. Yup, communism. No matter what your political affiliations are, you might agree that communists are generally of the fire-brand, dare I say violent and tribal (all for a good cause, all right?). The nature of football suits their psyche. Do our sportspersons and the parents of budding sportspersons look for safer options when it comes to choice of sports? Not the warring type. Not the fighting type. There's always a significant difference in the collective mindset of the countries that won their freedom by violence (or at least at war or some military action on a frequent basis) and the one that won it by non-violence and prides on ahimsa. I'm not taking this too far. I'm not. I don't think India is a natural breeding ground for sportsmen. Good part of what we have managed so far is just by accident or some concentrated effort somewhere and not generally from a well-oiled system. Unless there's a change in the mindset of the people of this country, football will never be a people sport in India. The truth is unless we embrace the game of football on its own terms, the peripheral support systems like sponsorships, clubs etc wouldn't account for anything. If you go by the evidence there's hardly anything to cheer about. From a highest global ranking we ever had of 94 in 1996, India has very steadily gone downhill to 154 now. It is during this period, we saw liberalisation, new sports channels, internet boom, social network explosion, access to European football- still our football ranking plummeted from 94 to 154. India should focus on producing sports persons rather than producing cricketers, tennis players and athletes. No matter which sport you play, you gotta play fair, you gotta play hard and play to win. These are principles that are to be taught right at the formative years of a child. The importance of teamwork, discipline, fighting spirit, fearlessness should start quite early in the careers. From those young sportspersons, you get your cricketers and footballers. Until such a fundamental change occurs, India will be a country of cricket players and cricket-rejects. Warning: Generalisation galore to drive home the point. Pracharak is a Chartered Accountant by qualification. Banker by profession. Blogger by passion. Neither neutral nor unbiased. He blogs at Pracharak.in The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.