The enthusiasm for soccer in India rings hollow without national role models

Dileep Premachandran points out that cricket is not the only sport that captures the imagination of the Indian public. In a phenomenon that is an inextricable part of the rise of the Indian middle class, soccer the global game, has caught on, creating a fanbase that is probably as knowledgeable and argumentative as any.
Indians sport Arsenal jerseys and plunge into animated discussions on whether Cristiano Ronaldo will leave Man Utd. Millions stayed up well past midnight to watch the recent Euro Cup as ESPN/ Setanta telecast them live. In this globalized world, Indians co-opt Brazil as their national team and follow them just as passionately. If Richard Scudamore had to play one of his widely panned 39th Premiership game in India, there would be riots on the streets of Kolkata to get tickets. He would also earn enough money through advertising and merchandising through that single match to pay a nice parachute payment to a relegated club.
As much this reveals the hold of soccer in contemporary India, it also says much that the nascent passion that animates Indians is directed at soccer played elsewhere. Unlike cricket which continues to make its pantheon of heroes an indigenous one, from Vinoo Mankad to Mahender Singh Dhoni, the Indian soccer fan has chosen to live vicariously, finding heroes overseas. This is in part to the sporadic nature of any meaningful success in the international arena as well as the moribund nature of our national Premier league which attracts hundreds of thousands in metros but few audiences beyond the big centers. Soccer heroes have been few and hard to come by and enjoy nowhere as near the adulation of the cricket superstars.
This was not always the case and an earlier generation of Indians remember the Indian teams of the 40s, 50s, and 60s that threw up stalwarts like Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, Peter Thangaraj, PK Banerjee, Jarnail Singh, Sawoo Mewalal, Altaf Ahmad, and Neville D’Souza. India first garnered attention in the 1948 London Olympics as the barefoot team dazzled the opposition. They went onto win (with shoes) the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games and entered the semi-finals of the subsequent two Games. In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Neville De Souza’s hat trick earned them a famous 4-2 victory over Australia as they came in fourth. India also finished runners up in the 1964 Asia Cup losing to S.Korea. Four of their players made the All Asian Stars XI in the mid 1960s. In those days, there was talk of Goswami moving to Tottenham Hotspurs.
It is not a stretch to say that our trajectory in that era was similar to Iran or S.Korea but who have since then left India in the dust with a number of Olympic and World Cup appearances with S.Korea finishing third in the 2002 World Cup. In fact, we have steadily slid from a FIFA ranking of 94 in 1996 to 153 today. Despite the AIFF president’s prescient prognostications, India did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
“So we have taken up the national youth development programme as priority for the last eight years. I’m very confident that we have launched a mission that India must appear in 2010.”
It comes as no surprise that Priya Ranjan Das Munshi is also India’s union minister of propaganda. It should also come as no surprise since taking over the AIFF fourteen years ago, under Das Munshi’s helmsmanship India has failed to qualify for either the Asia Cup, Olympics, World Cup, or do anything of note in the Asian Games. Even our more regional aspirations have looked far from reassured. The 80s onwards, we had a number of talented players but it has not translated into any significant success. Atanu Bhattacharya, Prasanta Banerjee, IV Vijayan, Krisanu Dey, and Bhaichung Bhutia impressed on an individual level, without India making any impact internationally. The trend seemingly continues with promising youngsters like Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, and Sunil Chetri under Bob Houghton, giving of fine performances even as a team our chances fade away.
Meanwhile, S.Korea has an equally passionate fanbase that follows Premiership soccer but they follow it through the prism of their own representation, a quartet of players led by Park Ji Sung of Man Utd. They in other words, have a horse in the race, and their success in soccer is a result of a confluence of different factors, such as nationalistic pride, unified vision, and tactical advances. This localized input into a global phenomenon energizes their own national league. Other young players are inspired to follow Sung’s footsteps, raising S.Korea’s standards. It is a flesh and blood relationship full of realizable outcomes, not based on an expedient longing to be connected to a larger world. The adulation that stunned Oliver Kahn in his India trip therefore has a comic book quality to it. Its strange but India that has long prided itself in its self sufficiency and routinely uses its clout in the cricketing world as a reminder that the colonial days are over, seems to have no problems handing the keys to the global game. It may give us instant access and a series of ‘but soccer is so popular’ articles but one would like it better if India and Indians stepped back and became more serious about creating their own heroes. Next time you put on a Ronaldo jersey think about how Climax! looks better.

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