Every Indian football fan has at least once heard the tale of its 1950 football team, who qualified for that year’s World Cup but were controversially denied participation because of a FIFA ruling that disallowed players from playing barefoot.
Since then, a FIFA World Cup finals appearance seems like a taboo dream for the second most populated country of the world.
India recently recorded its first win of their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign against the little-known Pacific nation of Guam, but that win is a mere consolation as qualification is already out of hand.
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Such performances make one wonder why a country with such tremendous manpower and positive appetite for sports thoroughly underperforms in 'the beautiful game’?
The most obvious reason for it is certainly the dominance of another sport in the nation: cricket. The Indian team has won two World Cups and is held in high regard by all.
Every second child of the country dreams of being the next Sachin Tendulkar, while most haven’t even heard of footballers Sunil Chhetri or a Baichung Bhutia.
The infrastructure, facilities and finances provided for cricket camps in India are far superior to anything done to propagate football. Cricket is the most successful sport and deserves to hog the limelight, but that certainly does not imply that football should take a back seat.
Many countries perform equally admirably in multiple sports. Take England, for example. They have a brilliant cricket team and an equally, if not more, revered and competent football team.
New Zealand recently won the Rugby World Cup and boast a cricket team that reached the 2014 Cricket World Cup final.
This goes to show that a system of equality to all sports can yield greater rewards to a nation.
The other problem Indians face when it comes to success at football is something we cannot really rectify: genetics.
Football is an extremely physical sport, tailor-made for the agile and well-built athletes. One needs to be physically strong and proficient to shrug off other players and have the reflexes of a cat to evade tackles. These are a few almost necessary prerequisites for a footballer.
The average Indian stands at 165cms (5 ft. 5 in.) tall and weighs 66 kilograms. Therefore, the odds are heavily stacked against Indians being successful at football.
Their bodies aren’t physical enough for the Premier League, agile enough for La Liga or tenacious enough for Serie A. However, there is always room for exceptions and contradictions.
Indian footballers need to play a brand of football more akin to them and work on their speed and stamina to counter the physical side of the game.
The Role of the I.S.L
For those who have been living under a rock for the last couple of years, the Indian Super League (I.S.L) is a football league competition initiated in India by a few wealthy businessmen and patrons of the sport to promote football in India.
Several big name players of yesteryear have plied their trade in the I.S.L, most notably the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Marco Materazzi and Fredrik Ljungberg. The competition is still in its nascent stages, with its second season currently in progress.
However, the I.S.L does not seem to be very helpful to Indian football, conclusive proof of that being India’s horror show at the 2018 World Cup qualifications. The games of the Indian Super League seem dull, slow and unattractive and are seldom a goal-fest or extremely competitive.
Star players like Del Piero or Nicolas Anelka seem like the perfect mentors for budding Indian footballers, but they generally seem to be devoid of inspiration and very rarely have they had a telling impact in their team’s campaign.
It is still untested waters for the I.S.L, but at the moment, they seem to point towards a lake without any fish.
One day, hopefully, things will change for the better in the country.