The nation empathised with India’s football skipper Sunil Chhetri when he released a video pleading with countrymen to spare the time to watch the national team play in Mumbai. Sportspersons live for the days when they step on the turf with fans waving national flags, chanting their names. Sporting icons, from Sachin Tendulkar to Virat Kohli, understand that emotion and have lent Chhetri their support. They, too, requested the country’s football fans to turn up in hordes to fill the Mumbai Football Arena, where India is up against fellow Lilliputians of the football galaxy — Kenya, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei, all ranked several rungs below India’s perch at 97.
While Chhetri’s grouse is understandable, to expect full houses for football matches is a tough ask, not least when football-watching audiences are still recovering from the season-long fatigue of watching the European leagues in time for the World Cup in Russia. A tournament in the fleeting interlude, featuring India and the minnows, can’t complain of a lack of viewership. In an ideal (or as the saffronistas would insist, patriotic) world, the multitudes should be queuing up to grab the tickets for the match. But mass appeal, footballers and sportsmen should realise, is not an entitlement. People watch what appeals to them. It’s no secret that national football doesn’t, not with its mediocrity and the tendency to shrink and shiver at the sight of even Asian’s middle-rung teams like Oman and Turkmenistan. Indian football is light years away from matching the Middle East powerhouses or the West Asian sparklers.
Indian audiences, though, have always rewarded quality — for instance, the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which featured some of the most talented young players. They also crowd the terraces when it comes to I-League matches like the Kolkata derby, or the Indian Super League matches. But mostly that is because of the skills of an African striker, or a South American player who couldn’t make it to the main league back home. So while there could be empathy for Chhetri, the bottomline is that a tournament with few thrills to offer in World Cup season will have few takers.