India's overheating economy along with China's is the topic du jour nowadays in the global economy. Overnight, the IT revolution and outsourcing has created the world's biggest nouveau riche group, India's middle class of more than 300 million people. To many investors, this represents potentially millions of new customers clamouring for everything, from cell phones to cheap air tickets. India's FDI now tops more than $70 billion a year, an increase of 116% over last year. Factories in India are finding it hard to keep up with demand. There is now a waiting period for cars and motorcycles. The Indian economy has seen an impressive almost double digit rate of growth in the last decade or so. Deregulation in the early 90's has led to the global market immersing itself in the Indian economy.
In this context it is not surprising that India's new rich has turned to golf as their choice of sport. Literally, thousands of school going children are taking lessons in New Delhi's dozen golf courses. Indians golfers Arjan Atwal, Daniel Chopra, Jyoti Randhawa, and Jeev Milkha Singh, have found success in the PGA and Asian tourneys inspiring many budding golfers to emulate them. And beyond them, we have a bonafide star in Vijay Singh, whose Indian roots are a
source of pride. Golf is a sport with bountiful prize monies, attracts hundreds of sponsors and endorsements, can be played well past retirement age, and at the end of the day requires less physical fitness than most sports. Moreover, golf is increasingly an essential part of a business profile, an attractive add on that enhances your marketability. In short, golf embodies the new individualistic and corporatist India.
Soccer's origins smack of Nehruvian socialism in this new India. The ascendant days of Indian soccer in the '50s and '60s were partly due, in fact, to the large PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings), the industrial behemoths like SAIL, BHEL, Indian Railways, who were in position to invest in soccer infrastructure, had teams as did the defense forces. In those days, soccer was primarily played to keep unruly states, newly integrated, in the Indian union. The quaint anachronism that is the Santosh trophy reflects those past vicissitudes. In today's context the Santosh trophy assumes that there is a visceral attachment to an abstraction such as statehood, when clearly we have moved on, as evinced in the empty stadiums that bear witness to matches between W.Bengal and Punjab, or more recently Manipur. In England a player is beholden to his club and country, not county. Fans gravitate to a more local affiliation, the club, which in many cases was started by a group of them, reflecting a historical and societal dynamic. We see it in the Bengal and Goa clubs (a wonderful history of Indian soccer can be read in Goalless, the Story of a Unique Footballing Nation). Unfortunately, this part of Indian soccer has woefully languished beyond the usual power centers of W.Bengal, Goa, Punjab, and Kerala, which is where most of these clubs are located. The Santosh trophy reflects Nehru's policy of the primacy of the state and its enterprises, creating an elitism, that has done little to enhance the development of soccer but preserves the bragging rights of exactly four states.
This is not to say that the advent of globalization has not touched Indian soccer. On the contrary, it has led to the formation of the National Football League (NFL), provided the players enough money, sponsored kits and equipment, and made the NFL rich many times over with lucrative TV and merchandising rights. Indian soccer is rolling in the money. But globalization cuts both ways. The airing of Premiership, La Liga, UEFA cup, the Euro and the World Cup, means the average Indian soccer fan can watch his favourite player, Ronaldinho in action and follow his favourite proxy team which unsurprisingly happens to be Brazil. The long dry spell in Indian soccer has left no soccer heroes that this generation of fans can look upto. Gone are the days of Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, Shyam Thapa, Prasanto Bannerjee, Neville D'Souza, and Peter Thangaraj, their exploits etched in history while being supplanted by European and Latin American soccer stars in the new global India. Even a bonafide star such as Baichung Bhutia enters the twilight of his career, his considerable talent inadequate to carry India on his back, without the tangible support of the rest of the players. The NFL has been unsuccessful in creating any indigenous heroes while it has become a magnet for third tier Nigerian and fourth tier Brazilian players. It has also failed to carve out an existence beyond the big Indian metros and its average attendances artificially inflated by the Kolkata club derbies, in actuality show a decline. The NFL is simultaneously, a beneficiary and a victim of globalization. Enriched by it but abandoned by an audience that has many choices, including golf.
What we need is a Gandhian approach to developing soccer and this means getting soccer out from the urban centers to the smaller cities in the hinterland. We can derive inspiration and ideas from how Japan managed to make soccer the number one sport in their country. The J-League after a fast promising start in 1992 also faced the same dilemma, with dwindling audiences after the first few upbeat years. But the J-League was blessed with visionaries who saw that circumscribing soccer in the confines of the big metros was surely its death knell, and they took to developing the secondary and tertiary centers of soccer in smaller cities and towns who built these clubs successfully from the grass-root level, leading to the formation of the J2 League. The J. League designated the core activity areas of each club as that club's home town. What this means is that the J. League expects each club to develop as an integral part of its community and engage in the promotion of football and other sporting activity within it (J. League Regulations, Article 21).Clubs from towns like Oita, Kofu, Sendai, Omiya, and Niigata formed the initial nucleus of J2 clubs, which has now grown to 13 clubs. The development of the J2 league is the prime reason why soccer has flourished in Japan.
India does have a NFL second division of six clubs. The premier cup competition in India, the Federation cup is open to 16 teams, ten in the first division and six in the second division of the NFL. Out of the 16 teams, four come from Kolkata, five from Goa, 2 from Kerala, 2 from Maharashtra, and one each from the Army, Karnataka, and Punjab. Sixteen clubs represent the soccer aspirations of a country over a billion strong. Even more shocking, these six second division clubs again represent that tiny group of states that have a traditional lock on Indian soccer. The NFL has introduced a fledgling 3rd division and if this succeeds then more clubs in other regions of India will get a chance to compete. However it appears that these teams are mostly from the para-military and other state organizations, whereas, the NFL 3rd division should be concentrating on developing coomunity based clubs. Compare this to the English FA Cup which invites not only the Premiership clubs and other Football League division clubs but also non-league clubs. The 2006-2007 season saw a record 687 entries. Lower clubs go through preliminary qualifying rounds to get to the next level. This egalitarian exercise involves the whole nation and its clubs, both professional and amateur, through the football season, and in the past had produced some of the most thrilling upsets of the more storied clubs. Amongst the more memorable ones, in 1991, 4th division Wrexham beat 1st division Arsenal, 2-1 and more recently in 2003, 3rd division Shrewsbury Town beat Premier League Everton, 2-1.
The AIFF can introduce a limited version of the FA Cup by increasing the number of clubs playing the Federation Cup, outside of the NFL and from other states, develop multiple regional venues that can host these games, get sponsors to provide kits, transport, and equipment, and get extensive media and TV coverage, market the event extensively, and truly make soccer a sport that touches millions of Indians. Imagine for a moment, the folklore history created by an unheralded club from Rajasthan, the Khetri Copper Mine Soccer Club that beats Mohun Bagan, the giant Kolkata club, and how powerful this giant killing feat could be in developing soccer outside the metros, in small cities and towns, perhaps creating an audience that is still unspoiled by the vagaries of globalization. In the Dominican Republic, lies the small town of San Pedro de Macoris, a sleepy sun soaked paradise known for its beaches and sugarcane. It is also legendary in the world of baseball for producing some of its finest players, including Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, and Robinson Cano, to name but a few. Who knows which small town will turn out to be India's San Pedro De Macoris in producing soccer stars?