Croatia, which gained independence only in 1991, has a population of just over four million. For it to make its first-ever World Cup final is an incredible achievement. It is inspiring to see how the tiny country has made the most of the talent at its disposal at the 2018 Football World Cup – just like Uruguay (3.4 million) and Iceland (337,829) have.
Closer home, however, one of the questions worth asking is that if these small countries can find a place among the top teams, why can’t a behemoth like India.
In 2012, Sepp Blatter, Fifa president at the time, described India as a “sleeping giant”.
“There are 1.3 billion people in India, that’s 1.3 billion people who want to play the sport,” Blatter had said. “To wake up a sleeping giant you need more than one alarm clock. We have put different alarm clocks here. And I have to say the giant is not any longer sleeping, it’s already starting to wake up.”
Six years later, however, India still isn’t anywhere close to waking up. Deploying population statistics to bolster the claim that India has great potential in football (and almost any other sport) is the wrong line of argument.
The arguments comes around in two four-year cycles – one that revolves around the football World Cup and the other around the Olympics. It prods our politicians and our sports federation chiefs to speak up – and then goes nowhere.
Creating a good national team depends on less than simple headcount of how many people live there and much more on a country’s sporting culture. It has a lot more to do with the systems in place than natural talent, it’s more about hard work than vanity projects. For instance, the under-17 World Cup that India hosted in October 2017 was supposed to be the shot in the arm that the country’s football scene needed. However, though the tournament has come and gone, India remains at pretty much at the same level. If succeeding at sport was all about public relations, India would have won that in a canter.
The bottom line: there is no football without a strong base, without grassroots activity and without systems to encourage this. And India has precious little in that area. The All India Football Federation believes in a top-down approach. It wants to put the big money leagues in place before the grassroots programmes. That approach has one basic problem: where is the talent for the leagues going to come from?
Critics have also blamed a lack of infrastructure for India’s failures. That is partially correct. However, even good infrastructure cannot stand in for a lack of sporting culture and paucity of systems that encourage sports at the grassroots level. In June 2018, the captain of the Indian football team, Sunil Chhetri had to make an impassioned appeal just to get people to come and watch his team play.
Of course, when all else fails, Indians are asked to remain hopeful because, goes the argument, population: there are over a billion people here, and at some point in the future, someone will find a way to succeed at the global level. India lives in hope but it shouldn’t have to.
Building a football team requires a systemic approach towards encouraging sports. Without that India is only going to look at Croatia’s football stars from afar and talk about how inspirational they are – because it certainly is not going to be able to compete with them anytime soon.
The Big Scroll
Read Scroll.in’s in-depth coverage of the FIFA World Cup 2018 here.
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