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The Rediff Special/T Thomas
How football could thrive in India
June 30, 2006
It is the season of World Cup football. A remarkable feature of the tournament is that tiny countries like Tunisia, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago appear among the participating nations, while India is nowhere on the horizon. It is worth analysing as to why India is missing.
For football was among the legacies left by the British. Most people are unaware that India once reached the semi-finals of the Olympics in football (in Melbourne, 1956), twice won the Asian Games gold medal in football (1951 and 1962) and even qualified for a World Cup finals in Brazil (1950) -- but the team could not go because it still played barefoot!
Today, half a dozen Asian nations figure in the World Cup finals, but India is nowhere.
Football is ideally suited for India. It is possible for even underprivileged boys in the remotest parts of India to enjoy a game by playing it themselves. All we need is a bit of open space with demarcated boundaries, markers for the goal post and a ball of any size or shape. That is why even village boys can take up this sport.
You can play without shoes and shorts, you can play it in the rain -- the murkier, the greater the fun! Unlike in cricket, both sides have their full teams on the field all the time and they physically battle with each other. It is not like hitting a ball and then waiting to see whether to take a run.
Action in football is all immediate and intense. It requires passion and a sense of urgency. That is probably why football is more popular in West Bengal and Kerala, where people tend to be more volatile and passionate.
Football also requires a lot of stamina and reserve power as a player has to outrun his opponent, keep an eye on the ball, assess the positions of his team-mates and opponents continuously and then pass or kick the ball to the best vantage point.
Such stamina is available with people from the hills who can keep going for long, arduous climbs. Perhaps Indian football should enlist more people from the hilly states, like Sikkim and Meghalaya to take up football; that way we might discover more Baichung Bhutias in our midst.
Football has to be made an attractive profession for young people, rivalling cricket. This means that they should have the opportunity to earn as much as they can from alternative professions. Since the active career of a footballer is limited to about 10 years, he has to earn and save enough in that limited period, and if possible retire with a lump-sum.
Once India earns a place in the world football league, endorsements could be another source of money for our footballers. But that is some years away. One challenge today is that cricket offers far more lucrative options for sports-minded youngsters.
Football therefore needs to attract more money.
One way to do that is to make it an attractive business proposition for investors. Companies like Tatas and Mahindras do sponsor teams -- but mainly to gain mileage for their house names. The Tatas also run a football academy in Jamshedpur, which has produced some of India's better football players, and DCM in its heyday used to sponsor a football tournament in Delhi.
But companies have tended to lose interest after a certain point. Perhaps business enterprises can maintain their interest only if there is a return to their shareholders. One model to follow would be the European one, where businessmen invest in clubs in order to earn an acceptable financial return through transfer fees of players, advertising revenue at stadia, etc.
This requires a completely different mindset, which one may find only in companies led by entrepreneurs of the 'now' generation. Thus, Vijay Mallya of United Breweries has invested in some Kolkata clubs. Other entrepreneurs who might fit the bill are Anand Mahindra of Mahindra & Mahindra, Azim Premji of Wipro and N R Narayana Murthy of Infosys. Premji is cautious, but his setting up of the Azim Premji Education Foundation shows that he wants to share his wealth with the less privileged.
Will the opportunity to lift the level of football in India to international levels and to develop gifted youngsters to international standards of performance in the game, appeal to him? The same logic applies to Narayana Murthy.
We need more football academies, run on the lines of the MRF Pace Foundation, which has brought the world's best fast bowlers to India to train Indian speedsters. Whoever takes up the football challenge may well start by setting up an academy for football that will import trainers from leading football-playing countries like Germany, Holland or Brazil -- the standards of coaching and tactical play taught elsewhere have no match in India today.
Those in charge could first undertake a talent hunt in states like West Bengal, where football is popular. Simultaneously, playing professional football has to be made a more promising career.
This means investing in and developing the national league (modelled on the English Premier league) that was launched a few years ago, to win public support and gate money, not to speak of television sponsorship.
The All-India Football Federation, which has so far not shown the entrepreneurial drive of the Board for Control of Cricket in India, should simultaneously be energised to take on the multiple challenges.
Companies can also help by providing jobs for footballers. In the heyday of hockey, Indian Airlines used to employ virtually half the national hockey team, State Bank of India used to recruit cricketers in the days when big money was not there in the game, and the railways used to recruit footballers. All these were public sector entities.
Private sector enterprise now needs to step in; even more important than the provision of employment when players are young is the assurance of an income when they are no longer able to play at the national level.
Footballers (like other sportsmen) can be employed in a variety of departments, including sales, human resources and public relations. Most sportsmen develop qualities that appeal to people. When a nationally known sportsman goes out in the marketplace to sell a product, the appeal will be great even in remote parts of India. On top of this, governments at the state and national level should create pension funds for distinguished footballers (in the old days, cricketers used to get benefit matches).
All this may not get an Indian team into the World Cup finals in the foreseeable future; but without the effort, there can be no prospect of an Indian team ever featuring in the World Cup, as one qualified to do more than half a century ago. We should not now have to wait for another half century for that feat to be repeated. What is required is long-term planning, with commitment of resources and leadership today -- and our country is not short of either.More Specials