First published:

State of Play

The early successes and current struggles of football in India

When it comes to the question of legacy in Indian football, most enthusiasts draw a blank. However a quick glance through the archives reveals details that are quite unexpected. It’s hard to believe that the sport was introduced to India by the British in the latter half of the 19th century, which is much before the Brazilians even had a whiff of it.

That should have given the country a head start of sorts, but over the decades that followed, there was a twist in the tale. While Brazil went on to become the most successful team at the World Cup, winning it a record five times, India has been left with the tag of a ‘sleeping giant’. The circumstances that led to this change in fortunes are what Shantanu Gupta and Nikhil Paramjit Sharma have addressed in India’s Football Dream.

The book opens with a ‘football for dummies’ briefing, but what follows is the most absorbing part of the effort. It starts out with the formation of some of the first few clubs in Calcutta (the early capital of British India), and the historic game of 1911 that fuelled the emotions of nationalism when Mohun Bagan became the first local club to beat a British team.

The focus then moves on to the success India had at the world stage post Independence—a fourth-place finish at the 1956 Olympics, two golds at the Asian Games (1951 and 1962) and runners-up at the AFC Asian Cup in 1964. What shaped those early glory days were a number of reasons—most importantly, a level playing field—but soon enough, India missed the bus, even as it continues to play catch up today.

The account of those times dotted with gripping trivia and romantic tales of how the sport found its footing during the days of barefoot football, is the highlight of the book. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where ‘… for the spectators the only way to understand the proceedings in the ground was to look up at the sky where flying kites signaled the score line’. There is also an insightful narrative on the origin and history of various tournaments, some of which continue to be played even today, though at times in a different avatar. This took the sport to different pockets of the country, where the birth of local heroes brought the beautiful game closer to the masses. While Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri are household names today, the book briefly touches upon the stars of yesteryears such as Talimeran Ao, Inder Singh and Mohammed Habib as well. At the same time, it misses out on Shanti Mallick—the first woman to be awarded the Arjuna Award in 1983 for her exploits at the AFC Asian Cup—which is an apt reflection of the state of women’s football in India.

The book begs for a voice that can share some insight on the many controversies that afflict Indian football, starting with the appalling step-motherly treatment of I-League clubs by the All India Football Federation, a take on the possible merger of the two leagues, a debrief on why established clubs such as Mahindra United, Jagjit Cotton & Textile (JCT) and Dempo chose to pull out of the I-League and the prevalent age fraud that has reared its head time and again among the juniors. While praising the ISL as the way forward for the game and the players, it also steers clear of issues such as the losses encountered by clubs and a dip in the average attendance at various venues over the five seasons so far.

A few mentions are misleading, such as ‘foreign clubs, mainly in Europe, wanted plenty of Indian players on trial.’ Truth is, there has hardly been a demand for Indian footballers outside of the country. Besides, these trials have been fruitful only for a handful of players and to a certain extent. The optimism is palpable, when they write about ‘the current day where India is all set to play at a FIFA World Cup’, though the on-ground reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The book’s objective approach can make it insipid for the non-football reader after a point. With hours dedicated to in-depth research, a personal narrative and a train of thought could well have been the key to selling, both the book and Indian football, to a wider audience.

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