India’s 2-1 loss to lowly-placed Guam, a Pacific island with a population of 1.65 lakh, marks a new low in the nation’s football history. With its second consecutive loss, India’s chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup are over. Fans had expected better after the team’s spirited performance against the better-ranked Oman last week. Indian football has always flattered to deceive.
Why is it that a nation of a billion people fails to match even tiny countries like Guam and the Maldives? After all, the game continues to be popular at the grassroots. Domestic football matches attract larger crowds than the Ranji Trophy. Viewership for the English Premier League and European League telecasts runs close to that for the Cricket World Cup. So, is it that we prefer to be a football-viewing nation than a football-playing one? The fact is that India has a miserable record in popular team sports — just a handful of nations take cricket seriously and we rapidly lost our supremacy in hockey when more countries started to play the game. Football has been a near exception to this rule since India was an Asian powerhouse until the 1960s — the last podium finish in an Asian Games was a bronze at Bangkok in 1970. The decline has been rapid since. Much of the blame should fall on self-serving administrators who cared little for the game and failed to groom talent. Other Asian teams at par with India till the 1970s — for instance, the Japanese and the Koreans — have risen on the world stage, whereas our national team is now unsure even against lowly teams from the subcontinent.
The advent of the I-League and Indian Super League may help to brand the game better and attract money. However, local leagues, which served as nurseries for the bigger clubs and institutional teams, are on the decline even in football-crazy states like Kerala and West Bengal. Any resurgence of Indian football is likely only if the game gets a push — in terms of funds, trainers, gear, exposure — at the grassroots.