It’s October 2021. Jeje Lalpekhlua stands over the ball as he runs up to take a penalty against the mighty South Koreans. The 30-year-old Indian skipper is searching for his 50th international goal as India require a solitary point in their last World Cup qualifier to cement a berth at Qatar 2022.
It’s a good dream to have, but one that most likely will not materialise any time soon for the Indian football fan. Ever since the hurt of 1950, when Sailen Manna and team had to pull out of the World Cup because of financial difficulties, we find ourselves ruing the fact that a sixth of the world’s population has never seen their country playing the quadrennial extravaganza.
Let’s backtrack a little. On November 20, Praful Patel, president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the federation’s intentions of bidding to host the 2019 Under-20 World Cup. Along with it, came a bold declaration that India “would aspire” towards qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
Patel’s presidency has seen some highs: a successful bid for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, the launch of the Women’s I-League and a league for the Under-16’s and the Under-18’s.
Mind you, it could still happen. A golden generation of players could break through and carry the national team to a (soon-to-be expanded?) World Cup. Today, 17-year-old Ishan Pandita and 19-year-old Ashique Kuruniyan ply their trades in Spain’s lower divisions, having signed contracts with La Liga clubs.
The weight of evidence against this happening, does make for a classic foot-in-the-mouth moment from the AIFF President. And what next? A top-four finish in 2030? But for all of this to happen or even for a wonder team to break through, Patel, also an AFC vice-president, must resolve the most elementary of issues first, the case of the two leagues.
Why must we be different?
None of the 32 countries that participated in the 2014 World Cup had two association football leagues running parallel to each other. So why should India, a developing country harbouring ambitions of making it to the top stage, be any different?
This will-they-won’t-they saga of the merger between the Indian Super League and the I-League seems to have reached Ekta Kapooresque-lengths and shows no signs of a definite conclusion in the near future.
FIFA recognises the I-League as India’s official league but the AIFF and the clubs themselves, barring Bengaluru FC, have colluded to mismanage the entire affair so wondrously that an unsanctioned (backed by the AIFF nonetheless) three-year-old league has managed to disrupt the footballing scene in India.
Despite the heavy criticism that the ISL receives in terms of giving chances to Indian footballers, or the average age of foreign imports, the most important thing to note is that the league has made more laymen stand up and take notice of the game, something that should be the obligation of the nation’s top league.
Bengaluru’s run to the AFC Cup final in 2016, and East Bengal and Dempo’s semi-final appearances in 2013 and 2008, respectively, aside, I-League clubs have barely covered themselves in glory at the continental level. Forget that, no club apart from the defending I-League champions have secured an AFC license this year.
A failure to market the league both by Patel and his predecessors and an abysmal audience reach has seen the I-league getting relegated to the status of second-tier at a time when interest in the sport seems to be peaking.
The one-league system has its obvious advantages: a certain continuity is established in a longer league, better scheduling and less confusion for the average Joe getting into football.
A cultural issue?
Qualification for the World Cup could be a cultural problem rather than a technical one. In a country so overly dominated by cricket, football really isn’t the game at the forefront of a lot of minds.
Tom Byer, co-owner of Fateh Hyderabad, certainly thinks so. “It’s not getting some coaches or players, it’s about bringing in the football culture. You’ve got to make parents a part of the system. Japan has a pretty good football culture today. When I first went to Japan in 1980s, there were very few technically proficient footballers and technical education in football was missing.”
It remains to be seen if major tournaments like the upcoming U-17 World Cup can bring in additional interest in the game and the effectiveness of all such tournaments will be decided by that metric versus the cost of hosting such massive events. One also presumes that the hosts, in a bid to be event-ready also shore up their existing set-up to avoid a major drubbing at the global level, that too at home.
The co-relation appears simple enough: more the interest in the sport at the viewer level (a side-effect of introducing the necessary culture), higher the money invested in the sport due to the additional eyeballs and fresh faces getting into football, at a younger age.
India’s only major tournament appearance came in the AFC Asian Cup in 2011, where they finished bottom of their group. This was also the national team’s first appearance in the tournament in 27 years.
At the time of writing, North Korea is the only one of the 11 AFC teams to have played a World Cup, but to have not yet qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, a situation India finds itself in as well.
Those 11 teams are also regulars at Asia’s equivalent of the Euros, something India has only qualified for three times in its 16 editions. These nations also have their top footballers plying in the top leagues of Europe, playing against quality opposition day in, day out. By contrast, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is the only Indian national team player in the squad of an European club currently.
In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, India finished bottom of their group, winning one and losing seven games, the seventh-worst record of the 40 Asian teams.
When you consider that the Asian Cup will have 24 nations but the World Cup to be held only three years later will admit four or five Asian teams (possibly more if expanded to 48 teams), you realise that it is a tall order for the Blue Tigers to make that huge a jump in a short time.
The signs are encouraging: the national team is heading in the right direction, with a younger average age and a highest rank of 137 in six years. But for the development of Indian football, Patel must resolve the more pressing matters at hand and stop selling the public such ludicrous pipe-dreams.