Thursday, November 30, 2023

Is football fated to fail in India?


Indian football, despite having tremendous potential, is still in the darkness. What’s the fate of Indian football?

Time for atonement for Indian football?

After the humiliating rap on the knuckles by FIFA for third-party interference on the very day we celebrated 75 years of independence, the All India Football Federation [AIFF] was re-admitted into the classroom after standing out for a few days on the corridor holding the ears. After giving an undertaking of good behaviour, much like Savarkar did before the British government in 1911, it has held elections, albeit again riddled with controversy!

Incidentally, ‘Atonement’ is the title of the last chapter of the mercurial Subhash Bhowmik’s autobiography “Goal”. In Bengali, the book is Bhowmik at his inimitable best… unpredictable, unabashed, and unrepentant. In his heydays, he could rip open the opposition defence at will in his red and gold East Bengal jersey.

On one occasion, as he recounts, he told his coach that he had had sex with his wife just before reaching the East Bengal ‘tent’ for the IFA Shield final on 29 September 1975. The shocked coach asked him if he could play. Bhowmik told him he was energised enough to rip open the Mohun Bagan defence. 5-0, it was with Bhowmik providing the crucial passes!

Today, India stands at an abysmal 104 out of 211 countries as per the latest FIFA Men’s Rankings released on 25 August 2022, in the company of nations like Trinidad, Madagascar and Kosovo. The women, thankfully, are doing much better at 58. Thank heavens for them!


It wasn’t this bad all the time. We have the world’s third oldest football tournament still running in the form of the Durand Cup since 1888. We have at least three football teams, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal more than a hundred years old. The Mariners [as the Mohun Bagan team is called] were the first ‘Indian’ team to win the IFA Shield way back in 1911. The AIFF was founded in 1935 and was one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation.


At the time of independence, hockey and football were the favourite games. Just as our hockey team kept winning gold at every global event, the football team experienced its “golden age” for a period of 12 odd years, from 1950 to 1962. It qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Uruguay but did not finally go to play due to a lack of funds! It won gold at the first Asian Games in 1951. It was the first Asian team to reach the semis of the 1956 Olympics, ending up fourth.

It won the Asian Games gold once again in 1962. In 1970 it got the bronze defeating Japan. It was the runners-up in the Merdeka Cup in 1959 and 1964. The English Football Association [predecessor of the current FA] voted East Bengal as the best Asian club in 1951-52. The club got rave reviews when it toured Romania and the Soviet Union in 1953. The women’s team, under proper training from the mid-1970s, went on to be runners-up in the AFC Women’s Asia Cup in 1980 and 1983.

The decline started in the 1980s. The World Cup Cricket victory of 1983 was a turning point both in the fates of cricket and football in India. That year, the two sports might have looked at each other as near equals. Since then, they parted ways, and the divergence has been most stark, to the benefit of one and the detriment of another.

The events that have been happening with Indian football over the last two decades are in the least inspirational and aspirational. Neither has the sport inspired the nation at whatever competitive platform possible nor has it been aspirational for the youth as a career option. This is not what it was supposed to be for a sport that is of the masses, or as it is lovingly called, “the beautiful game!”

I took the opportunity to reach out to a few friends in the space of football administration, management and nurturing and ask them what exactly had gone wrong and if there was a way out. I am thankful to each of them for providing their candid and passionate input.

Shaji Prabhakaran, President, Football Delhi, and newly appointed Secretary general, AIFF

Indian football will definitely get global recognition and perform with credibility in future, but I expect it will take a good 12-15 years.

I believe there are three key initiatives that will help get the recognition.

  1. A competitive league structure – if ISL and lower tier leagues grow at a faster pace in the next 3-5 years and then we can see the emergence of fan culture in India, which was not seen outside Kolkata, which might attract significant brand connections with ISL, and we can see local heroes emerging from Indian football.
  2. One highly talented player from India is likely to break into the big leagues/clubs in Europe in the next 5-7 years, and if this happens, then we can certainly see a poster boy emerging in Indian football, which would have a multidimensional impact on Indian football
  3. Youth competitive structure – if improved, then we can certainly see more talented players emerging from many parts of India. Right now, the competitive youth structure is very weak, and we don’t find many talented players reaching the top of football in India.

There have been many missed opportunities. It was football which took the lead in Indian sport by launching the National Football League in 1996, the first sports league in Indian sport. But this massively failed to build the league as it missed many global best practices. Similarly, we, as the host of the FIFA U17 World Cup 2017, failed to take the best advantage of the kind of unprecedented investment football received from central and state govt, but the impact was limited to some media hype.

Rajesh Kharabanda, Managing Director of Freewill Sports, the makers of the Nivia brand of football equipment

The future of Indian Football would depend on how much focus is being put on building the various national teams. ISL franchise clubs are more professional and focus on building teams that deliver. AIFF has to look at its teams with the same focus.

What is missing is the complete “Football Eco-System” at the district and state levels, at all age groups. Firstly, the opportunities are limited, and talent fades away unrecognised. Secondly, India still does not have any organized school and college leagues. Having these leagues would be like moving one step forward toward a complete Football Eco-System. Thirdly, starting multiple age-specific ISL leagues would support the popularity of the game and more players would come out and play the game for longer years.

The biggest missed opportunity has been the failure to increase mass participation in the sport. The industry’s sales number of footballs does not reflect the growth of the game at the grass root level. The viewership, fan base, and media rights have grown exponentially, but if the real, actual participation of the people who play the game does not grow, any other growth associated with the sport is unsustainable.

Roland Binz of the Dettmar Cramer Foundation

The Dettmar Cramer Foundation was set up by the legendary German football coach Dettmar Cramer (1925 – 2015). He was a member of the staff of the winning West German team in the FIFA World Cup in 1954 and second in 1966. He became FIFA’s first full-time instructor during 1967-1974. He also won two European Champion’s League titles while coaching Bayern Munich! The right man to start such a foundation.

Cramer was most crucially involved in Japan’s rise to international fame. Starting in 1960, as JFA’s head coach Cramer diligently led reforms on all levels of Japanese football: coaching the coaches, introducing a novel football philosophy to players, and restructuring association/club management. Cramer was most successful in establishing in players both a winning attitude and a strong belief in self-confidence, consolidating ground-breaking changes throughout this country’s football approach.

The national team’s most prominent, indeed sensational, success was Mexico Olympics in 1968 when Japan took home the bronze medal. In 1971, Cramer, now called the “Father of Modern Japanese Football”, was presented with membership in the Order of the Sacred Treasure for his “service to Japan” by Emperor Hirohito personally. In 2005, he was inducted into the Japan Football Hall of Fame.

Roland brings a very unique perspective to the discussion.

Implicit in the demographical decline of football in any nation is the decrease of “mathematically advanced” youngsters and of those with superb cognitive skills.

Sparse data on India’s IQ levels and distribution of cognitive abilities in Indian society do not allow predictions as to its further economic development. However, India’s demography is okay, and now football has come into the Indian perspective.

Studies around the world, just recently one at Sweden’s Nobel Prize institute, confirm football’s positive influence on intellectual prosperity. In addition, studies from around the world show that playing football from age three contributes effectively to brain growth and learning competence.

In football, kids from scratch learn to appreciate abilities allowing them to adapt to the demands of constantly changing or novel environments: the dynamics of a match, of every single activity, opponents’ competencies and mental skills, weather conditions influencing individual behaviour, of different surfaces of playfields to mention a few.

All these functions are needed in everyday life, too. Novel coaching concepts based on holistic views teach players to transfer these cognitive abilities from the pitch into private life, thus creating dual careers: One, learning to develop and enjoy bodily excellence, two, gaining the flexibility to transfer abilities to all areas of social and vocational life, and increasing one’s employability as well.

Teaching awareness of this process and how to make use of these abilities off the pitch belongs to the most important benefits reformed football would be able to offer to India. Even bigger is the benefit of this discovery from a socio-economic perspective.

India’s problem, however, is to increase the intelligence of those walks of life in need of opportunities to grow their potential and contribute to the nation’s prosperity.

Rathin Basu, Vice President and Head – India & South Asia at IMG Media

Sadly, football is not a national sport anymore. it continues to be played in pockets like Bengal, Kerala, Goa, Manipur, Nagaland and Punjab, but that is it. It does not have the following of cricket by miles but also other sports like badminton which are becoming increasingly popular and also lucrative as a career.

The country needs a professional federation that learns from leagues like MLS, J-League and SA League. Quite a few countries in Africa have federations that run the sport in a much more professional manner.

Also, if ISL is the high point of the sport, it says a lot about its current state of disarray.

This brings me to the last part of my chats with my friends about the Indian Super League [ISL].

Has the ISL worked in lifting the standards of Indian football since 2014? Will it prove to be as impactful as IPL has been for Indian cricket?

I believe the ISL is a damp squib. It is a tournament of retired and low-division overseas players having a good time in India, showing their dated skills on the turf. I doubt if the young Indian players learn anything from them that they would not if they played FIFA with the right level of concentration!

“No, not at all”, says Shaji, who agrees with me. “ISL might have adopted many practices of IPL, but when it comes to performance on the pitch, ISL is far below the ladder compared to IPL. IPL is the best cricket league in the world, played by the best players.”

“Just one corporate cannot run a sport”, says Rathin. “Other big brands and organisations are staying away because the one running the ISL is creating an entry barrier. This is again one more example of wrong decision making by the federation in its effort to revive the sport.”

Rajesh has a more positive outlook. “The positive highlight is that Indian football is on the world map now. When players from South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa or Central Europe come to play in India, they send the message back that India is also a choice and future for Professional footballers. This has also given respect to “Made in India” products and services that are associated with ISL. Nivia, our brand, became the Official Ball for the ISL. I am sure many other Indian products and services would have gained from their association with ISL.”

Right now, the situation is not too bright for football. I sincerely wish the new AIFF team gets about its task with a “do or die” approach. We need organisations like DCF to be brought in on a national level to inject the right level of skills, understanding and capabilities to create the second golden age of Indian football. Thankfully, as a nation, we have been given another chance to host the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup a month from now. Hopefully, the administrators will learn better this time. And the politicians stay away from it all!

Also Read: Too much cake, too little bread!

(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

Avik Chattopadhyay
Avik Chattopadhyay
Avik Chattopadhyay is the co-creator of Expereal India. Also, former marketing head, product planning and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres and Groupe PSA as well.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Share post:


More like this

Navigating the path to sustainable energy: Trends and challenges

With climate change and its adverse impacts on mankind,...

Unmasking Artificial Intelligence: The game changer in today’s digital revolution

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been garnering a lot of...

The growing need for security at the Edge

By Rahul S Kurkure With the growing focus on cybersecurity,...

Improving mental health in India: Challenges before us

By Siddhartha Mitra Mental health remains a major issue in...