World Cup: Where Indian football went wrong

Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief of CNN-IBN and Channel 7 India, reflected in the Hindustan Times on India's lost opportunities for World Cup action:

"Three decades ago, soccer for most Indians was still about East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and the Goan clubs. Sure ... the Bengali, and most certainly the Goan, have always seen themselves as Brazilians in spirit, if not quite in style.

In the paaras of Kolkata and the beaches of Margao, football has always been a spiritual, as much as a physical, experience, the stadium — a shrine, a place of worship where the men in yellow and blue were demi-gods. And yet, while the Peles and the Maradonas were always part of the Indian footballing consciousness, the reality of the game was still defined by domestic soccer. East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan determined the market price of the next day’s ilish maach and chingri just as much as the quantity of rum in Mumbai’s Catholic heartland depended on whether Dempo or Salgaocar had reached the finals of the Rovers Cup.

Our heroes too were home-spun. How lovingly we cut out pictures of the Habibs, the Ranjit Thapas and the Brahmanands from the centrefold of sports magazines, to paste them up on our whitewashed walls of pre-liberalised India, photos that yellowed and crumbled under the probing fingers of time and mothers! Those photos were part of our romance with the game ... And yet, the mediocrity never seemed to concern us. It was almost as if we were happy to be cocooned from the rest of the universe in the only truly global sport.

All that has changed rather dramatically in the last few years. My son has little knowledge about the star Indian players. He knows of Baichung Bhutia, perhaps the only contemporary Indian footballer of any star value. But the rest of his football heroes are all shaped by the Western world. He has bought a Frank Lampard shirt from the local market, has registered on the web to become a member of the Chelsea supporters club, has a large poster of John Terry on the wall, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the teams playing in the English Premier League. As he and his friends play out a Premiership match on Playstation, it’s obvious that their passion for football has moved well beyond Dempo and East Bengal. At the heart of the addiction: satellite television.

Ten years ago, the social conservatives in the country railed against what they saw as the corrupting influence of daytime soaps like The Bold and the Beautiful. They need not have worried. Today, the family soap is the ultimate desi cultural phenomenon, the saas-bahu sagas having pushed out American serials to the margins of the television-watching viewership. Ditto with the news channels, many of whom have localised content to such an extent that there seems little space for world affairs in the 24-hour news wheel.

However, if there is one niche in the television business which has been actively globalised, it is sports. Sure, cricket remains the ultimate sporting religion, but increasingly other sports — most notably soccer, and even more remarkably Formula One — have begun to compete for mindspace and airtime like never before. Just to share one example: on CNN-IBN, we have 12 sponsors for our football coverage, four for the cricket series.

It’s almost as if football has become a symbol of the power of the new economy: the sport is universal, and for the multinational brands in particular, it provides the perfect stage to establish the connection between the Indian middle-class consumer and the global marketplace ... But while in cricket, television has strengthened the local appeal of the game, in football just the opposite has happened. The weekly coverage of world soccer matches has meant that the Indian metropolitan viewer is now sharing a global experience. You can sit in Gurgaon and feel the buzz in Manchester. In the process, the stark mediocrity of Indian football has been cruelly exposed like never before.

No longer can we celebrate in the achievements of our domestic teams because we now know just how far behind the rest of the world we really are. To be ranked 117th in the world, and to watch tiny Trinidad and Tobago — a country that will fit into the pocket of any city suburb — perform so well in the World Cup, is a wake-up call ...

Fifteen years ago, Japan, then on par with us in global soccer rankings, embarked on an ambitious long-term soccer training and talent spotting programme. The Japanese league was professionalised, foreign coaches and players were brought in, and the entire domestic structure was overhauled. Today, Japan is an Asian superpower that competes with the best in the world."

See also: Unnikrishnan lists the faults of Indian football (3 June)