Without A Strong Football Culture, Indian Football Has Little Scope For Improvement

13/07/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
India's fans cheer after their team scored a goal during the Asia Group D FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying football match between India and Oman at Kanteerawa Stadium in Bangalore on June 11, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MANJUNATH KIRAN (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Football is as important to society as society is to football -- this always has been, and will continue to be true. As fans, our significance to the game is reflected in our ability to associate it with our everyday lives through various modes: we buy official team merchandize; we discuss football at school, college and work; we use social media as a tool to engage with total strangers as well.

This article in The Guardian uses the following paragraph accurately to describe football's significance to society on a cultural level:

"Football unites all those people who love the game, whether in agreement or disagreement, at the same time as it divides the supporters of the different clubs. The more you know about the game, the deeper the enjoyment; the more passionately you support your club, the deeper your involvement. The amount of intellectual energy generated by football is unimaginably massive; the effect of such passion is to dramatize the lives of people who might otherwise be snared in disadvantage, poverty and disability."

Culture is absolutely necessary for the survival and evolution of football, since it is created by a section of mankind -- mostly comprising fans, who are the lifeblood of football. The reason this sport has withstood some of the most trying times in human history (such as the two World Wars) is because of society's love and passion for it.

If we were to understand culture (broadly) as 'a set of shared attitudes, ideas, and practices that characterize the people of a society', it follows, then, that within this broad definition, elements such as art and sport serve as the vehicles through which these ideas are communicated. Football culture, as part of an overarching sports culture, would therefore involve the application of these attitudes, ideas, and practices to the realm of football. These beliefs and customs will probably differ among societies depending on the respective national cultures, but they remain fundamentally similar in that they promote a strong sense of community and nationalistic pride.


This is what India lacks -- an identity that makes football a microcosm of the Indian society. "

It is impractical to pigeonhole human tendencies exhaustively as components of a football culture because they depend on the customs and traditions influencing each society; there are several rituals and practices that are common to most societies, though. Going to the stadium to support a team, for instance, is among the oldest and most prevalent. Others include fan chants, supporter groups, use of social media, etc. Typically, a strong football culture would integrate the societal, political and economic aspects of a nation through these shared practices, in a way that allows the sport to transcend the 90 minutes on the pitch and entrench itself into the lifestyles of the masses.

This is what India lacks -- an identity that makes football a microcosm of the Indian society. Some of the most successful football nations have strong ties between the game and the population. In Brazil, for example, football is "even more than a religion". In order to explore the problem of culture within Indian football, it may be useful to retrace the origins of the game.

Football as we know it originated in England in the 19th century. It later spread to other parts of the continent through British colonialization. Most of the British colonies underwent a period of nationalization, which gradually eradicated the British influence over football. This period of nationalization marked the advent of a culture of football in these colonies; a culture so powerful that European nations now account for over 50 per cent of the top 50 teams in the world.

Like most of Europe, India too was under British rule for over a century. Football was first introduced in India in mid-nineteenth century by British soldiers as a recreational activity. Despite spreading all over the country, the Indians' connection to football was restricted to watching from a distance and, at best, returning the ball to their English 'masters' when it went out of play. Within the next few decades, however, in an attempt to challenge the British dominance over football, the locals began forming their own clubs and competing against their rulers.

It is a little known fact that around the time of India's independence, football -- or the universal game, as the cliché goes -- was the most popular sport in the country, because its sheer simplicity allowed it to pervade all strata of Indian society. India boasts a rich football history and was a powerhouse in Asia. A failure to capitalize on its achievements saw Cricket surpass it following India's famous 1983 World Cup triumph against the West Indies. Cricket has since grown to a point where it is wrongly billed by some as India's national sport. The difference in the masses' perceptions of the two sports is purely cultural.

"[B]ut how many of us Spain and Argentina fans can name India's starting XI? "

Cricket enjoys a strong cultural identity, and is mostly treated like a religion. When it comes to football, however, India finds itself in a peculiar position where most football lovers appear to be influenced more by European than domestic football. We prefer watching the English, Spanish, Italian, and German leagues to the native I-League. I can understand that periodic tournaments such as the Euros and the World Cups require us to pick sides, but how many of us Spain and Argentina fans can name India's starting XI? None of my friends can; and, chances are, there are many more that cannot.

Of course, we fans aren't entirely to blame for this disconnect with Indian football. It is, after all, the responsibility of the governing body (the All India Football Federation) to ensure that the product, i.e the telecast of national football events, meets certain minimum standards that make for a decent viewing experience. This is far from the case at the moment; for starters, there is an acute lack of media coverage of most national football events. The games that do get televised are extremely difficult to watch because of the awful quality of football, mediocre commentary, blatantly incorrect referee decisions, and --with the exception of Bengaluru's Kanteerava stadium -- poor atmosphere at the stadiums.

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The good news is, India's national team coach Stephen Constanine has already picked up on this issue. In an interview with the Times of India, he highlighted the fact that India's shortcomings aren't just physical or technical, but also cultural. He said:

"There is no football culture in India. It's not about a question of fitness, skill, or technique; rather it's a question of developing a football culture in the country."

He's right; for all the infrastructural and technical problems that plague Indian football, our dismissive mindset towards the game needs to be corrected if we are to stand the remotest chance of growing; because even if the AIFF does everything in its power (far-fetched, I know) to develop the game at its end, it wouldn't matter unless we take it upon ourselves to take the game forward.

In an earlier paragraph, I spoke of specific behaviors that may fall under the ambit of football culture (attending live screenings, using social media, etc). Readers from India may be aware that these practices, despite having originated in the West, are widely adopted in India. However, they're applied to many leagues across the world except those in India. You're not going to find too many pubs preferring the I-League over the English Premier League, for example; you're also unlikely to find many people posting tweets, status updates, blogs, etc., about the I-League compared to La Liga or the Bundesliga. While there is no doubt that there is serious interest in football, it is considerably undermined by the fact that it doesn't carry over into the national football scene.

The most recent, and possibly only exception to this was that the fallout from the unprecedented success of the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL) marginally benefited the 2014-15 I-League, which saw a 6% increase in average stadium attendance compared to its previous season. Although it might indicate progress, it is difficult to imagine that this kind of growth can be sustained in the long run.

During a recent conversation with a friend, he told me that since he already follows three European leagues extensively, he doesn't "feel like" developing an interest in another, which I suppose is fair. Besides, transitioning from the Premier League to the I-League can be arduous. Anyway, his remark got me thinking -- if parents introduced their kids to Indian football at a young age, is it possible that future generations would develop something stronger than just an "interest"? A passion, or a love for Indian football, for example?

FIFA president Sepp Blatter referred to India as a "sleeping giant", presumably implying that with over 1.2 billion people, all it needs is a kick up its rear end before it "wakes up" and begins harnessing all that potential. The defeat against Guam looks like it may have stirred something, judging by Mr Constantine's recent PR offensive. It's time we showed some interest as well.

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