A puzzle that is Indian football
Like two huge trucks caught confronting each other on a narrow road, each vying for a right of way but neither budging from its position, Indian football is in the throes of a struggle between two major leagues the ISL and the I-league, each projecting its importance.
How in the first place such a scenario could have come about is a question that need not be gone into because in this country imponderables are part of this poor cousin of inarguably the world's most popular sport.
When towards the end of the 20th century the AIFF fell in line with the Asian body's line of thinking that only a national league can propel a country's football standards, a national league was launched. But for various reasons the sparkle did not last long and in a decade's time, a new avatar, the I-league came in as a replacement with modified rules and forward thinking ideas.
The theme was that the I-league would provide just the kind of all-round competition involving talents from all over India spread over various clubs and thereby helping improve standards of play and become contributor of good players for the national team. That is the way many other countries had benefited and in particular Japan where J-league was a phenomenal success and from where we had hoped to learn a few ideas.
But whether it made the kind of impact in India, is a moot point. At least the record of achievements of Indian football do not reflect much. It is safe to say the best of Indian football was long over in the period between the fifties and perhaps mid-seventies.
Since then it has been mostly up and down, so much so that when an India U-23 team won a tournament in Vietnam, beating the host in the final in 2002 it was good enough for a euphoria in the football circles! A win indeed is a moment to rejoice but the achievement was in a modest field of opponents and the reaction seemed a trifle overboard.
If the intention behind the launch of the national league and thereafter the I-league was positive the image of football in the country however was to receive a dent when popular tournaments around the country slowly but surely disappeared from place to place.
If football thrived, then part reason was its standing in the public eye and tournaments had ensured that. They loved the sport as do millions the world over. Anyone traversing Kerala for instance would be struck by the fan base for football.
Overcrowded stadium and serpantine queues for tickets for popular tournaments and even the Santosh trophy national championship used to be part of football folklore and if Bengal glamour clubs had that halo around them part reason was because of these die-hard fans who would remember each player like the way kids today remember players of English Premier League or other European league teams!
The younger lot today are fascinated by the action seen on the television but fans then thrived on the happenings live on the ground! All said and done there was a certain charm in being close to the action and that was the stadium. That went away from the fans.
It is here that the ISL made the difference. The franchise based programme that allowed football centres in the various regions in the country provided just the setting for a healthy exhibition of the game, an enthusiastic involvement and of course a healthy rivalry. One is compelled to compare this with the IPL in cricket.
Cricket did not need any extra effort to raise its popularity. It anyway was a craze in the country but certainly this fixture jacked up the visibility of the sport and the players and we are seeing this. Cricket's image has never been as high as now. True the advantage that sport had was its different versions but football does not need that.
As it is the sport is compact but the ISL packaging with a sprinkling of well-known world level players, local heroes as also up and coming talents provided just the recipe to pull the crowds back to the stadium. People in each region began to identify themselves with their local side and this is what adds to the entertainment value. Everything had been going well but whoever would have thought that an event of this nature would in the end lead up to this kind of impasse as the parent body finds itself in now!
It is sad that Indian football remains bogged down with such kind of unexpected twists. Today there is nothing lacking for the development of sports and in particular football in the country. The facilities are there in plenty, there is talent and more importantly there is money, ready to be pumped in.
The country also proved its ability in organising a World championship, the FIFA U-17 event, with aplomb. That way an Indian team could also participate in this exalted level. Yet the sport continues to live on promise for the most part. The country hopes to come into the World Cup cluster at the senior level before long but there must be some proof of the longing.
A good show on the international plane is the biggest need. With a coach of the reputation of Igor Stimac, the man who took Croatia to the 2014 World Cup in charge, the question that will again be asked (as was asked of all his predecessors) is will he make the difference. The players need it; they have suffered enough for want of clarity. The fans too for want of footballing heroes.