From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.37 :: Sep. 15, 2011
The world's best footballer, Lionel Messi, showed precisely why he is the cock of the walk in the friendly against Venezuela in Kolkata.
India's love affair with football actually dates back further than its tryst with the game of bat and ball. The national football side had even qualified for the 1950 World Cup — before withdrawing owing to various reasons — a good two years prior to the nation's first Test match victory against England in Madras.
Traditionally, though, football has only remained popular in the eastern corner of Bengal and in the Arabian Sea coastline of Kerala and Goa. And, more importantly, only amongst the poorer strata of the society. In Kolkata, the high frequency derby between traditional rivals, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, always drew more than a lakh, first to the Eden Gardens and then the Salt Lake Stadium from the mid-80s. And it was the urban poor that thronged the stadiums.
The players, idolised by the masses, failed to bridge this rich-poor divide and stayed away from the swanky drawing rooms and boardrooms of the neo-liberalised India of the 90s.
While cricket, buoyed by the World Cup success of 1983, walked away with all the money, fame and fanfare, football continued to slide further, falling completely out of the pecking order as mismanagement, unruly crowds and lack of national or international exposure made it almost a pariah sport amongst the western educated urban elite.
The advent of satellite television and the regular weekend dose of European football, mainly EPL, has of late found a cult following amongst the youth in the consumer-driven, fast-growing Indian metropolises. But this class has always had a disdain for Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chettri, or any of the other so-called Indian soccer icons. Bhutia, who was the sole torch-bearer of Indian football for the better part of the last two decades, says: “There is a following for EPL and La Liga in India. It shows that Indians do understand the game and have a love for it. It's all about providing them with a quality product. Those involved with the game in the country have failed to do that so far.”
The following for Messi and for international football was unbelievable.
The All India Football Federation's (AIFF) approach towards the beautiful game has been only amateurish so far. Its few half-baked measures for improving the sport have been destined for doom because of a lack of proper planning and execution.
The arrival of Lionel Messi and with him the best of Argentine talent for a FIFA friendly against Venezuela a few days back has seen unprecedented football frenzy not just in the host city of Kolkata but all over the country. Thousands from Delhi, Mumbai and other parts of India thronged the Salt Lake Stadium, not minding its limited facilities and paying a premium price to see the present owner of the world's best footballer crown.
Brought to Kolkata by a group of private investors, the ‘Messi match' has produced the kind of football euphoria previously unheard of in the country and has almost rivalled the feelings that the country's cricket World Cup win generated a few months back. Walking along the streets of Kolkata two days prior to the mega event almost gave one the sense of being in Buenos Aires or Rosario as the centuries-old city turned blue-and-white to give a homely feeling to its illustrious visitors.
“This was an iconic day for Indian football and there are a lot of positives to be drawn from this,” says AIFF vice-president Subrata Dutta: “Football in India or Kolkata was mainly a poor man's sport till date. But this match has changed all that. The ticket pricing has made sure that only the upper middle class and the upper class watched the game.”
Elaborating on the importance of this development, Dutta adds: “This group is the main target audience for the corporates because they constitute the biggest spending force in the country. The interest of this group in football will accelerate the much-needed commercialisation of Indian football.”
Baichung Bhutia, the Indian icon who announced his retirement recently, says that such an euphoria for the game should be harnessed for the benefit of Indian football.
The match indeed was different in every sense and in a class of its own even for Kolkata, which already had hosted other footballing stalwarts like Lev Yeshin, Pele, Oliver Kahn, Diego Maradona and Diego Forlan among others. “The players previously were either past their prime or didn't play (in case of Forlan). Here you have a national side with all its best players including the very best in the world. This was indeed the greatest footballing spectacle in India till date,” says Bhutia. “The (urban) Indian football fans have at last come out in the open and we should do our best to hold on to them. We need a wider representation on our grounds and this game has shown a much wider base for football in the country.”
Messi did indeed give the 80,000-strong spectators at the ground something to cheer about as he revelled in his role as the Argentine captain for the first time. He made some scintillating runs across the artificial turf, drawing almost all the defenders with him, leaving huge empty spaces for his team-mates to exploit. “He showed us what he is. It was only natural that so many people from all over the country should come to watch him play. It was a privilege for me to watch him from such close quarters and shake hands with him,” says FIFA referee A. Rowan, who, as the main whistleblower for the game, was the closest to all the action.
The aftertaste of the spectacle still lingers. And the need of the hour is to build on the success, cash in on the renewed public interest and give the correct impetus to the game. The world governing body, FIFA, has also of late turned its attention to the “sleeping giants” and has sanctioned a number of projects for grass-root and infrastructure development in the country. The international body's Technical Director Jean Michel Benezet and Development Director Thiery Regenass were present at the ground to evaluate the organising potential of India and then to advise the federation on its future course of action.
Despite some problems (which is common in India) of heavy-handed, clueless security personnel and an unfortunate power cut during the post-match press conference, the overall outcome was positive. The AIFF has already received 10 more proposals to organise club and international friendlies. The fast growing Indian economy has made the country an attractive business market for the European clubs as well as national sides and the federation's aim should be to derive the maximum benefit out of these trips. The matches should not turn out to be just a profit-making exercise for the visiting sides and promoters, but stepping stones for the growth of the game in India. But given the AIFF's track record we shouldn't peg our hopes too high.
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