It was the year 1950, just 3 years after India gained its independence that the Indian football team qualified for football’s biggest extravaganza i.e. FIFA World Cup. The economy of India was in its infancy then and investment in sports was the last thing on government’s agenda. Ergo, due to lack of right finances to cover the travel costs to Brazil, India’s hopes of playing the Football World Cup faded quicker than a solar eclipse.
Exactly 67 years later, the same opportunity came knocking and was iced with a double boon. India is at the helm of FIFA U-17 World Cup, it will not only host the entire tournament across 6 different locations but will also feature in Group A along with Colombia, Ghana and USA. But what does this tournament mean for Indian football? Will football in India grow by leaps and bounds post World Cup? Or will it go up in flames?
History is witness, hosting or participating in big tournaments bring in big money and big money polishes talent like nothing else. India dominated the world of hockey for decades and aced Olympics from 1928 to 1964. With the unreal spearhead in Dhyan Chand and incredible talent in the entire squad, hockey enjoyed huge popularity among masses. In 1975, India hosted the Hockey World Cup and conquered it with flying colours.
Then came the age of cricket, which was always popular since colonial times but grew in prominence after Indian cricket team started participating in World Cups. When Kapil Dev-led India triumphed against West Indies at Lord’s cricket ground in the final of 1983 cricket World Cup, Indian cricket saw a meteoric rise. The popularity of cricket grew to such level that it is an unofficial religion in India today.
When India hosted Commonwealth Games in 2010, it brought many marginalised games like badminton, boxing, athletics, etc back to life. Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, Vijender Singh are a few names that shot to fame post Commonwealth Games. The point is that big tournaments bring necessary spotlight along with them which helps in identifying the talent and when the talent is there for all to see, everything starts falling right in its place. From state-of-art facilities to top class training equipment, from world class coaches to top notch kits; when a talent is honed with such privileges, not just the individual but the whole sport is radicalised.
Although India has its football league from a long time and even the newly-instated Indian Super League but these leagues have limited audience and hence, don’t really help in catching the global eye. Top footballing leagues of the world — Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 — enjoy massive popularity in India. With the hosting of FIFA U-17 World Cup, hopefully sports authorities will push some investments in football and more Indian youth will be encouraged to take up the sport.