Football is popular in India but without a strong domestic competition fans will continue to watch the English game, writes Simon Creasey
It may play second fiddle to cricket as the national pastime, but football has a big following in India. In July 1997 a record 131,000 people crammed into the Salt Lake stadium in Calcutta to watch the KBL Federation Cup semi-final between bitter rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. In the same decade attendances of up to 100,000 were recorded in Kerala and Bengal. Goa, Bangalore and Delhi also regularly enjoyed matchday attendances of between 25,000 and 35,000.
If you walk around any major Indian city today, you will see kids wearing the shirts of the top Premier League clubs – and some masochistic souls in Blackburn colours, thanks to the club's Indian owners. Therein lies the problem. Despite the nation's growing interest in Premier League and Champions League football, over the last decade the standard of domestic Indian football and its support base has stagnated.
According to respected Indian football journalist Novy Kapadia, attendances have fallen off a cliff in recent years. "All India Football Federation (AIFF) figures show that the average crowd for the first six months of this season's I-League is 3,139. This figure was only reached because of the 80,000 crowds for both the derby matches in Calcutta."
The combination of a falling number of supporters, limited exposure in the national media and the spiralling cost of operating clubs resulted in the closure of two teams in a 14-month period – JCT, who were owned by a textile company, and Mahindra United, who were financed by a multinational investor. "Their closure is the end of an era in Indian football, which for decades was sustained by teams financed by corporate entities," says Kapadia. "In a changing global business environment these companies have gradually opted out of football."
Kapadia suggests that a range of problems need to be addressed urgently: "Professional management, better marketing, greater attention to the national team and spreading the game to different states is required for Indian football to have a brighter future." The highly trumpeted launch of Premier League Soccer earlier this year was expected to address many of these issues. The six-team league was due to begin in March, with Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo and Fabio Cannavaro competing alongside locally produced players. But in late February the organisers announced that the league would be postponed until April at the earliest, due to their inability to secure stadiums capable of hosting the matches; many Indian football followers are sceptical as to whether or not the league will ever appear.
Another Indian organisation, Sporting Ace Pvt, has since contacted agents in Europe about the availability of their players for a six- to eight-team football competition kicking off in October. They have promised wages equivalent to "European standards".
Such initiatives may draw publicity, but they are unlikely to improve local standards. The bulk of the teams taking part in Premier League Soccer would consist of lower-level Indian footballers, as I-League players can only be registered to one club at a time. As one well-placed Indian pundit noted: "Spending money on ageing international stars in the twilight of their careers looking for one big final payday is not going to help the domestic game, which is crying out for investment."
These new leagues will also not address lingering problems, such as the dilapidated condition of the nation's football stadiums and the poor quality of pitches, an issue raised by QPR's head of youth development Steve Gallen, who visited the country for a youth football tournament late in 2011. Gallen, who has been to India for each of the last three years, says he has seen an improvement in the technical level of Indian youngsters over that time. He believes that further inroads will only be made when the playing surfaces are improved. "India needs radical changes," says Gallen. "Besides infrastructure, there is a crying need for good pitches. If the turf is of a good standard then the pool of talent will automatically swell and with it the quality of the football."
Significant changes are being planned. The AIFF is about to implement an ambitious youth training structure with the creation of eight regional academies and two elite national academies over the next few years. There is also growing interest from large European clubs, including Bayern Munich and Manchester United, in setting up academies in India. Some of the country's larger stadiums are in line for upgrades to make them more suitable for the demands of modern-day football supporters. But with the national team currently languishing outside the top 150 in the FIFA rankings, many Indian football pundits question whether such belated efforts will be of much help.
From WSC 303 May 2012