Guam, an island nation located in Micronesia, would be a challenge for most to spot on the globe without using a magnifying glass. Spread across an area of just 543 square kilometres, Guam is close to the size of Mumbai city. In fact, Guam can be boxed into India’s biggest city, Kolkata, like a Matryoshka doll. None of that mattered, however, when this unincorporated US territory, with a population of not more than 200,000, defeated India 2-1 in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. For a country that won its first international game in 2009, Guam went on to conquer a country boasting of 1.2 billion people with just 11 men.
India ended 2015 by winning its first game in the qualifiers, but, with two games left, it has no chance of travelling to Russia to play in its maiden World Cup. In the last seven qualifying campaigns that India participated in, it lost half of the 40 games played and conceded double the number of goals it scored.
Before the time Guam had even become a member of FIFA, which was in 1996, India had once dreamed the same dream as the tiny nation: to compete against the best and make their mark.
Few need reminding the story of India withdrawing from what would have been their first World Cup. India did not travel to Brazil in 1950 for the World Cup. The reason behind the team pulling out from the competition is, however, disputed. FIFA acknowledged that India withdrew because their players weren’t allowed to play barefoot. However, the main reason, according to former Indian footballer Sailen Manna, is that they weren’t interested in travelling halfway across the world for something they haven’t even “heard” of. For India, the Olympics mattered more than any other football competition in the world.
India made their international debut in the 1948 Olympic Games in London — yes, barefoot — against France. They went down fighting 2-1 but their efforts received praise from Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister Princess Margaret. The Indian players, drawn primarily from Kolkata clubs, showed early promise when Mohun Bagan beat East Yorkshire regiment 2-1 in the 1911 IFA Shield final. More than 100 years later, Indian football clubs today are struggling to stay afloat. With the emergence of the Indian Super League (ISL) and declining sponsorship money, clubs playing in this year’s I-league are down to just nine from 11 the previous season. Roughly 50 players were out of contract when the ninth edition of the I-league began in December. Those who signed for new clubs took 25 to 30 per cent pay cut.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) remained a passive onlooker down the years and has been accused of doing little to boost the floundering league. Lack of promotion and revenue model has forced many clubs to wind up operations. Seven clubs have pulled out so far since 2007 after rebranding itself as the I-league. At this rate, the I-league will soon attain the novelty of becoming the world’s smallest league after the Isles of Scilly, which has just two teams competing for the trophy every season. In a bid to revive interest and promote the league, the nine remaining clubs have formed a corpus fund along with the AIFF. The money will be used to buy advertising space in TV and print media, as discussed at a stakeholders meeting. Many believe that the I-league is on its last legs and a merger with ISL is on the cards.
Building a strong national team won’t be possible without a solid league structure from which talented players could emerge. The AIFF needs to look no further than east to find answers. Japan has one of Asia’s best football leagues. A case study on the Japanese J-league by KPMG has shown how the founders of the country’s football association brought in reforms that made the league exciting and clubs profitable. Their aim was simple: improve quality of football and generate interest in the sport. It wasn’t easy as the country had a devoted following for sumo wrestling and baseball. To make people come and fill stadiums was a tough ask. Registering the J-league as an autonomous, not-for-profit body has allowed its management to take decisions on behalf of all the clubs registered. Everything including sponsor deals for the clubs is decided by the league association. This enabled clubs to compete on an equal financial footing and made them competitive. They also invited clubs to promote the game in their region and develop a relationship with local communities. Two decades of hard work saw some of the biggest names in football emerge from the J-league. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa, AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda and Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo are all products of the Japanese league.
Japan is currently fourth in Asia Football Confederation member association rankings, which are based on points awarded for clubs and national teams. Its national team made five appearances in the World Cup so far and has an average FIFA rank of 33.
On the other hand, India was ranked 100 when FIFA first published its list of member associations in 1993. Ever since then it has been in a free fall. Never in the last two decades did India breach the top 100. Its lowest was, most recently in 2014, when it fell to 171. Over the years, member associations have increased from 167 to 209, but India maintained an average position of 133.
India avenged their humiliating loss to Guam in the reverse fixture, but hopes of travelling to Russia for the World Cup have long faded. The country, however, will be hosting its first U-17 World Cup in 2017, which means automatic qualification. Success in the tournament could herald a new beginning and pave the road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.