Why India is a minnow in world football

By Rajdeep Sardesai
13 June 2010 20:17 IST

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that," legendary Liverpool football coach Bill Shankly.

If sports is modern-day religion, then for the next five weeks, football will be venerated as a global deity. No other sport has successfully touched a chord with so many millions across the globe as 'The Beautiful Game' has. 32 countries will compete for the Holy Grail of football, the FIFA World Cup. They will range from tiny Slovenia to mighty Brazil, five-time winners of the prize. Much has changed since the first World Cup in 1930 when barely thirteen countries made the trip to Montevideo. In the road to South Africa, 208 countries participated in the qualifying matches (more than the Olympics or even United Nations members). One thing hasn't changed though: India will be watching from the sidelines yet again.

Ironically, India did qualify for the World Cup of 1950, but had to withdraw because their request to play barefoot was rejected by FIFA! The 50s and early 60s were, in fact, perhaps the only period when Indian football showed some signs of being able to compete at international level. India won the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games gold, and quite remarkably, finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics with a team that at last could wear boots! In the current world rankings, India is ranked 133, just above Bermuda, Tajikistan and Barbados, but below Faroe Islands, Fiji and Luxembourg, the populations of which might barely match a South Delhi residential colony.

Why is it that the world's second most populous country will not be competing in the ultimate mass sports event? (Remember even China qualified once for the 2002 World Cup). There is, of course, the usual argument of how our obsession with cricket has reduced all other team sports, including the original national game of hockey, to the margins. That might be true, especially in the deplorable manner in which most major corporate bodies have shunned sports outside of cricket.

But it still doesn't provide a full explanation as to why football should lose out in the manner it has. Brazilians are obsessed with football in the near-manic manner of cricket in this country, yet that hasn't prevented them from producing world-class teams in a range of other sports from volleyball to basketball.

It also isn't as if Indians aren't passionate about football. Watch a game in Margao, Shillong or Kozhikode, and the exuberance of the fans can match the best in the world. I have deliberately left out Kolkata, the home of Indian football, because Kolkata at one level has come to symbolise the decline of the sport. For Kolkatans, football for the longest time was about narrow parochialism: East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan was the life and death contest. Instead of truly professionalising club football, Kolkata allowed it to lapse into a cesspool of mediocrity, much like the rest of Bengal. For the longest time, the Kolkata football league, played on poor grounds with limited infrastructure, appeared to satisfy the Bengali fans appetite for the sport. By the time the ineffectual football administrators woke up to the need to truly professionalise the league, it was simply too late. The rest of the world had left us far behind.

Ironically, the wake-up call came with the arrival of satellite television in the 1990s. Suddenly, the Indian football fan was exposed to the best talent in the world, not just once every four years at a World Cup, but virtually every weekend through the live telecast of the major soccer leagues. The quality of the football on show made us realise just how much we had lost out in a rapidly changing sport, how second-rate imports from Africa or Latin America could never be a substitute for the real thing. Today, a generation of Indians is being born who are Manchester United and Real Madrid fans and not that of an Indian football team, fans who idolise a Wayne Rooney before they would a Baichung Bhutia.

In a sense, this 'globalisation' of sport also provides an opportunity to revive football in the country. As the next few weeks will confirm, there is an enormous appetite to watch football in this country. The challenge is to translate this popular appeal for the sport into a genuine footballing culture. This would require, in the first instance, a need to shed a certain Brahminical disdain for playing physical 'contact' sport. Every school in this country must have a football ground as a way to 'democratise' the sport, every child must be encouraged to kick the ball. Indian cricket has succeeded because it truly democratised itself, moving beyond the traditional elites of Mumbai and metropolitan India. Football, too, by laying a solid foundation in the north-east for example, can actually become an aspirational sport, an opportunity for the non-cricketing centres to find a place in the country's sporting sun.

None of this will happen overnight, but will probably require a 20-year plan. We may never be able to compete with the physically superior Europeans and Africans, or the artistic Latin Americans. But as the relative football success of a Japan and even a China have shown, if there is a willingness to invest in the future, then it is possible to reap the rewards over time. We may never play in the football World Cup in my lifetime, but can't we at least work to recapturing some pride in the Asian context?

Post-script: Since I can't wave an Indian flag at the World Cup, I am planning to make Portugal my team. My Goan blood won't let me have it any other way!
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Projyot it is upto every individual which team to support. And the author has clearly said that being a Goan he is supporting the Portuguese Team. You have nothing to be shameful about. Mr. tell me who are you to judge others when the Indian Government himself has established good relations with Portugal, Britain and France and whoever ruled India (the Europeans). Stop this type of things. In the Olden times even in India there were cannibals and thugs but now the times have changed. The whole world has changed. Try to live up with modern times. Just because you don't like a particular nation does not meant that others also should do that. Each one has his freedom and apart from talking like that you cannot do anything. That's all

- Menino G. P. T. Fernandes (Valpoi/UK), United Kingdom of Great Britain | 28 th June 2010 16:33


My dear Prajyot - You must be sleeping or in the 18th century. First of all What the author has said is right. Secondly there is no Indian team which qualified in the world cup unless you introduce one so that we can support it. It is not a cruel nation. You must be dreaming and by the way all the teams are non Indian so which team do you want the Goans to support. The author is a sensible man. If you find his supporting Portugal in the world cup shamful than it shows your sporting spirit and weak mentality to show down every little thing.

- Jose Noronha, Mapuca | 28 th June 2010 16:12


Good Article. We can not improve our football game because Indian blood and mentality does not permit us to pass a ball to other teammate to score a goal.

- Chetan Acharya, Loliem, Canacona | 28 th June 2010 10:58


The article is well written and impressive... but the poor thing is that author being a goan, has made portugal his team!!! Its very shameful that Goan blood is still supporting the cruel Nation!!

- Prajyot, Goa | 23 rd June 2010 13:20



I share your sentiments regarding Indian footbal! A lot of work needs to be done to raise the standard. May be proper diets would ensure that there are physically strong players top match the ones in other countries, but the federations have to be free from politics and politicians!

By the way I too support Portugal apart from Australia !

- aires cabral, Melbourne | 20 th June 2010 12:26


Excellent Article.....As Rajdeep said need Globalisation in Indian football

- Syamkumar S, Kerala | 19 th June 2010 22:12


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