The Indian tango with Football
Before we kick things off, let me shoot with a few statistics which really make the rest of this article rather complementary.
The Football World Cup -
2002 - 34 million Indian viewers
2006 - 50 million Indian viewers
2010 - 63 million Indian viewers
2014 -160 million Indian viewers.Indian viewers for Cricket were 200 million, for the record.
We’d say more, but you can do the math. Football isn’t just growing, it’s exploding in India. Cricket might pull off all the “reinvention” it wants, but the fact that it needs reinvention so badly is its very death knell. The facts are right here. Cricket may yet have a larger base, but it’s simply a matter of time at the break neck pace of football.
A look at historical data further would show that this gap is narrowing down every passing minute. Because every passing minute a person in India is discovering a new Football player, a new club and is following it religiously. The revolution which started in the states of West Bengal, Kerala and Goa has now become a contagion, spreading across the country. With the mushrooming of Manchester United cafes and apparel outlets in almost every major city of India, this phenomenon has captivated the Indian audience.
To a few hardliners who still might feel that football overtaking cricket is not possible, i have one word for you.
If India could have moved from hockey being its national sport(it still is) to cricket being its religion, then the transition to football is very much on the cards. At this point i would like to point out the similar sporting revolution sweeping India.
Weren't we the World Champions of Hockey? We were the Barcelona (Football analogy) , the Australia (Cricket analogy) of Hockey- 8 Gold medals, 1 Silver medal and 2 Bronze medals and still (STILL) we are the most successful Olympic Team ever! Then what went wrong? How and when did Cricket overtake it? Let us see...
- 1932 - First Test Match ever, which we (obviously) lost. Arguments over how the team was led.
- 1952- First ever Test Win, After 20 years of defeats (some humiliating) and controversies.
- 1960s referred to as Dark Ages of Indian Cricket, mostly due to off-field antics of fans.
So far, Hockey is the superior sport. The countrymen take pride in it, while Cricket is struggling to find its way. But 1964, often cited as 'start of demise of Hockey' doesn't coincide with the gain in popularity of Cricket (which would be somewhere in 1980s). What happened all those years in between? That one and half decade? What happened is human nature! The game of Hockey changed, but the team's policy didn't. The Indian hockey lords were continuing in fool's paradise, while international standards were going up. They took pride in 'their' way of playing - of their touch and superb body language. They failed to adapt to the game, their methods became obsolete and outdated.
Now roll on to 1980s- the decade that changed everything.
Indian hockey was on its way down. They stuck to their motto of 'Grass is good. Synthetic pitch kills our artistic play.'
On the other hand in 1983, Indian won the Cricket World Cup. Following years saw emergence of some talented cricketers under the leadership of players like Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. And a massive boost was handed was the World Cup that was held on home soils 1987 and 1996. And then there was the legendary Sachin Tendulkar, the dependable Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and so on. The Indian fans had found a new sport to follow, new gods to worship. And the reasons were there, Hockey lost its way, and Cricket took advantage.
Now cricket, basically is in a similar position. It’s a colonial hangover that's more of an advertising extravaganza than a real sport. Breaks at the drop of a hat. Check. Captive audience. Check. Langourous pace of play. Check.
Now football, is a purists game. It’s not called the joga bonito for no reason. Came rain, come snow come what may. The game goes on. One 15 minute break, and back to sheer flowing poetry. No wonder Indian’s are lapping it up, tired of a game that packs its kit every time the clouds as much as grumble. And don’t even get me started on the monstrosity called Duckworth Lewis. In addition to being the single greatest source of headaches since Navjot Singh Siddhu, it’s almost more comical than that ex-cricketer, how a game gets decided by hocus-pocus. Football is of course for simpler people, people who find that a sport should ideally be decided by play, and not turn in to a statistical farce every time it as much as drizzles.
The thrill in it is all about the outcome of the match. So when it comes to sports, the best the audience can be offered is giving them live feeds, in addition to of course, actually giving them a real game. Unlike watching a Game of thrones episode in India on a Monday morning before you rush off to your office and try to be the smarty giving spoilers to everybody, watching a sporting event after it has been telecast live is not thrilling at all. Hence, live broadcast is critical. All EPL matches are perfect prime time weekend watch. Fortunately the time zones match too and we as a country understand English.Also, the advent of the internet makes it easy for you to follow the sport. One can easily catchup on the missed matches, the hullabaloo with giving a red card to a popular player or for that matter if someone wants to read an expert’s take, even that’s available. People start identifying with the club’s history by reliving it through the internet. Live broadcast on the internet makes sure you never miss a match even if you do not have a television at your disposal. Internet has been the key and most vital instrument in the league becoming even more popular in India. The increase in subscription model of revenue for TV/Internet will ensure high content quality.
If you take up any newspaper in India, you’ll often find that the top 3 news blurbs featuring football and the news may involve something very intricate like the transfer of Ronaldo or Messi. This shows that not only are people taking interest in the game but it goes beyond the name dropping hero worship cricket inspires.
Manchester United, Barcelona, Arsenal and Liverpool all have academies for youngsters from ages 6 to 18 across big cities in India. A lot of money has been pumped in and they are professionally run. It is a matter of time before India throws up its own Messi or Ronaldo. We need somebody who can capture the emotions of the 1.2 billion people.
Few months back ,we saw team auctions of a new football league in India (ISL)where celebrities and cricketers bought football franchisees for cities across India. Criketers like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Bollywood celebs like Ranbir Kapoor among others own football clubs in the India Super League. This league is under the aegis of one of the biggest corporate in India- Reliance. This is a small step towards a bigger dream. This league is no games, mind you. It’s backed by IMG, one of the largest football talent firms in the world. Amongst others, Milind Deora, a politician from Maharashtra, runs a football competition for kids in South Bombay with the help of a few corporates. This is on the lines of famous celebrities in Europe and Latin American countries running such competitions.On the whole, people are already sensing a massive groundswell behind football, and All these developments are only to leverage the exponentially growing football fan base in India.Sleeping giants India starting to wake up, says Sepp Blatter, FIFA President. When the president of the global football body says this, it’s no longer children’s play.
Just a few days, I heard a huge ruckus down one the street. When I looked for the sources, there was an veritable army of blue clad youth, yelling out “The Blues go steaming in!”, replete with flyers, scarves and flags. Now this is isn’t London, home to Chelsea’s homeground, Stamford Bridge. This is Bangalore, where football is clearly marching on. You can happily choose to ignore the din, but the real question, how long before free long passes obliterate our colonial wickets?
If you really want to hear the groundswell, here is a photo of Rajib Roy. The son of a single mother Rajib, 16, lives in the red light district of Kolkata, West Bengal, sharing a single-room home with his mother -a prostitute- and his brother. Only now, he is set to play football at Old Trafford after being spotted by talent scouts from Manchester United.
Football my friends, is the scrappy street wise lad who’s out with a chip on his shoulder, and a point to prove. And just like Rajib Roy, you can put every obstacle you can find in its path, but the beautiful game will dribble past you all the same. You can try and fight it, and go out on a hit-wicket, or accept the inevitable, and join the chorus.