Football in India: On the rise

Football. The beautiful game. Adored by millions of all ages across the world. The men’s professional game has become a multi billion-dollar industry, with the biggest games averaging tens of millions of viewers worldwide. However, for such a popular sport, it has always seemed strange in the views of experts as to why one of the world’s most populous countries, India, has never really taken to the sport.

India’s national football team has been playing since 1938, and even qualified for the 1950 World Cup. However, the AIFF (India’s football governing body) decided to withdraw from the tournament. As of today, the reasons are unknown, but rumors suggest many different possibilities, including the Olympics taking priority for India, logistical issues and an inability to understand the importance of the world cup as a tournament. Extreme rumors even suggested that India withdrew due to FIFA not allowing them to play barefoot!

So why doesn’t India love football? Everyone else does. According to official FIFA statistics, only 24% of Indians play football. Many would argue that Cricket takes priority from a young age, similar to the way that football does in England. India are amongst the world’s best when it comes to cricket, and a lack of suitable grass roots pitches across the country means other sports, such as Kabbadi, and Khor Khor, have taken young people’s attention away from football.

India’s huge population gives their national football team many possibilities.

We spoke to a Chennai local, Harsh Shah. Harsh is a student at a local University, so has grown up whilst Cricket was predominantly the country’s favourite sport. However, he, like many, has noticed the growth of football recently. He said:

“Football has clearly seen a rise in popularity in the last few years with a lot of grassroots level initiative from clubs and organisations. But again a sport like cricket will always gain precedence in a country like India. Honestly, in semi-urban and urban settings, it is the influence of European football coupled with the advent of the Indian Super League that is seeing a break in the trend of only sticking to a sport like cricket.”

In 2013 we saw the launch of the Indian Super League, a first division for Indian football. Teams were launched under the ownership of various famous faces, including M.S Dhoni, Abhishek Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar and John Abraham. But the famous faces are not exclusively off the pitch. On the pitch, various European legends of the game came out of retirement to help promote the sport in India. Players who have enjoyed glittering careers, such as Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero and Alessandro Nesta have all played in the Indian Super League. Shah explained:

“To see European players of note playing in India with budding Indian footballing talent is genuinely endearing. In my opinion, only good can come out of it. Personally for me, seeing them in flesh on a few instances was a dream come true. It is however sad to see such initiative of getting famous players is happening only now.”

Clubs across Europe have sat up and taken notice of a potential superpower growing, with Atletico Madrid, one of Europe’s best sides, taking part ownership of Atletico De Kolkata, and West Bromwich Albion, of the English Premier League, launching a first of it’s kind partnership with Delhi Dynamos to introduce football to children at more than 2000 schools in the wider Delhi region.

West Bromwich Albion are working hard to spread football across India.

Deep on the Bay of Bengal reside the current Champions of India. Managed by Italian legend Marco Materazzi, who you may remember as the man Zinedine Zidane head-butted on his farewell from football in the World Cup final of 2006, Chennaiyin FC have built up quite the reputation. Amongst their owners is Indian cricket legend M.S Dhoni, and former Liverpool full back John Arne Riise is their marquee player. Shah is a Chennaiyin FC fan, and spoke about how they have awoken a new found love for football, not only within himself, but many other young Indians. He said:

“Football now definitely ranks among the most followed and liked sports. It is evident from the sort of crowds seen in the Indian Super League in the last three years, since it’s advent. The social media outburst has also shown that football is gaining traction among other sports like cricket and hockey in India. But as mentioned earlier, it should’ve been promoted and emphasised upon much earlier.”
Chennaiyin FC beat Goa 3–2 in 2015 to win the Indian Super League
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