Despite cricket dominating India’s sporting landscape there has not been a shortage of enthusiasm for football in recent years. The recent friendly between Argentina and Venezuala that was help at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata is testament to this. 1000s of fans went out on the streets to meet Messi when he arrived and although the Salt Lake stadium did not sell out there were still 75,000 fans inside the stadium. As well as this there are a reported 20 million Mnchester United fans in India. In fact the 2008 Champions League final between United and Chelsea was watched by over 267 million viewers in India.
India and Indian’s are becoming more involved in the World’s most popular sport, for example the Indian food company Venky’s now owns Blackburn Rovers. Liverpool are setting up an academy in Delhi. Manchester United have actively been trying to break into India for some time, recently signing a five-year deal worth £12 million with Indian mobile communications company Bharti Airtel and a future tour of the country by United may not be too far off. Chelsea also have increased commercial links with India as well as funding a ‘Search For A Soccer Star’ programme aimed at identifying up and coming Indian players.
It is not the exposure of foreign leagues that is the problem in India, but of its own domestic league. Television revenue is absolutely vital for the funding of clubs in Europe and the I-League in India tried to replicate by signing a big money deal with Zee Sports in 2007. However Zee Sports cancelled the 10 year deal due to financial issues only 3 years into the contract which meant during last season no games were televised except Kolkata games that were privately negotiated with a Kolkata TV cooperation. As things stand the domestic league still does not have a TV broadcaster for the upcoming season. Sunando Dhar, the I-League CEO stated that he was ‘confident a partner could be found soon,’ to air the matches. So far the league has been in talks with ESPNSTAR and Sony, although nothing has come into fruition yet.
It is because of how poorly marketed the leage is that clubs are in such big debt with all leading clubs regularly suffering losses of up to 7 crore each year (roughly £1 million). Even winning the league only brings in 50 lakhs (roughly £70,000) for a club which equates to the salary for a single player. Until the I-League negotiate a new TV deal clubs will continue to be debt-ridden and inefficient. In fact two clubs have been disbanded and blamed the lack fo TV revenue for their decisions, Mahindra United in 2010 and JCT FC in 2011.
Despite boasting some large stadiums the average attendance in the I-League is only 3913 meaning that the majority of clubs take very little money at the gate. One possible reason for the poor attendances is the times of kick-offs which are usually 4.00 pm, a time when a lot of people are at work and kids are at school. There have been plans mooted to move games back to 7.00 pm where it will be cooler and allow more people to watch. Even with a change in times attendances for some clubs, who have basically no fan base will struggle to bring in the crowds.
Dr Shaji Prabhakaran a leading football consultant in India stated of this ‘“Indian clubs have traditionally done nothing to build support bases. The relationship between fans and their clubs here is ridiculously one-sided and one-sided lover affairs usually don’t last.”
Although the I-League will never measure up to the EPL it doesn’t mean they cant develop their own fan bases. In Japan and Korea the domestic leagues are thriving with stadiums being constantly sold out despite in Korea’s case their best player playing for Manchester United. The domestic game is still well supported as it has been marketed far more successfully than the I-League.With regards to Korea it should also be noted that baseball is by far the most popular sport there in the same way cricket is in India.
The National Team
It is not just the I-League that is in a bad state in India, the state of the national team is in absolute crisis. Having dropped to its lowest ever position India is now ranked number 158 in the World. The nations international record is poor and its easy to see why they are ranked so low. With regards to the World Cup India only qualified once in 1950 (by an invite from Brazil) but withdrew, largely due to the long sea journey and the fact that the team played in bare feet. The team have never qualified for the tournament through the qualification phases.
With the Asian Cup things haven’t been much better, despite being runners up in 1964 their record is again poor. In 2011 they only managed to make the first round after being allowed entry by winning the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament for emerging football nations which saw India beat the likes of Burma and North Korea. The Asian Cup however seemed a step too far for India who were drawn in a tough group with regional heavyweights South Korea and Australia, as well as Bahrain, India managed 0 points, scored 3 and conceded 13.
In truth India’s best current footballer is Michael Chopra of Ipswich Town who was in talks with the country about representing at the 2011 Asian Cup, however India’s policy on Dual-citizenship and their refusal to make an exception for Chopra means he will most likely never represent India. In fact only one Indian player has ever played in Europe, India’s most coveted footballer Baichung Bhutia who played 37 league games for Bury FC. Another famous Indian player Sunil Chhetri did sign a contract with QPR in 2009 but was unable to gain a work-permit to play in the UK. Later signing for Kansas City Wizards although playing time there was limited which led to a return back to the I-League.
Problems with India’s national team are widespread. Like the I-League games are poorly marketed. India’s 3-1 qualification victory over fierce rivals Pakistan in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup was not even televised. Although it should be noted that this game was on during the Cricket World Cup which no doubt dominated headlines and TV space.
Other India games such as their recent World Cup 2014 Qualifier versus the UAE was incredibly well supported. What this game demonstrated was again how infrastructural problems are holding India’s game back. Pitches become easily waterlogged, especially a problem during the infamous monsoon season, as there is no drainage system in any of India’s big stadiums. In that particular game the pitch was apparently so waterlogged that a simple five yard pass became impossible. Infrastructural problems with sporting events and stadiums in India are not exclusive for football just see the debacle that was the preparation for the Commonwealth games.
Infrastructure is so bad that when league champions Dempo qualified for the AFC Cup (Asian equivalent of the Champions League) they could not play their games at home having to shift from playing in Goa to Pune because their Fatorda stadium was deemed unplayable by the AFC. Playing on sub-par pitches is definitely detrimental to the development of young players and to the game in India as a whole.
There are a few infrastructural improvements going on. The Cooperage stadium in Mumbai is being renovated, with FIFA funding $2.5 million of the cost. Sepp Blatters ‘Win India With India’ project has also helped provide several stadiums with artificial pitches. For example the stadium in Karnataka, Bangalore which having been refurbished is one of the best in the country, although that doesn’t say much. Just recently FIFA announced that they would be setting up four regional football academies in India in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Future academies are also planned for 2013 in Chennai, Chandigarh and Kerala. The idea will be to select the best young players from schools across India with the help of FIFA and in theory be developed into the next bright Indian stars.
Regardless the government needs to pledge a big investment to help the growth of the sport and to improve its exposure. Every state has at least 1 or 2 top class cricket facilities which is in stark contrast to the state of football facilities. The government seemingly builds cricket stadiums at the drop of a hat with even somewhere as relatively remote as Dharamsala having an IPL stadium. The cost of building football stadiums is not cheap with Transtadia, a sports infrastructure body quoting about 15-20 crores to build a simple 15-20,000 seater stadium. Thus, as stated if the game is going to improve the government will need to pledge funds in the same way it does for cricket.
It will not be a short term project and even the 2022 World Cup in Qatar may be too soon for India to break through on the World scene. With regards to the I-League, despite all its problems it is only 4 years old and if they can negotiate a new TV deal with Sony or ESPNSTAR before the start of the new season that could go someway to increasing the exposure for the game within India. Improving the quality of the domestic league would certainly go along way to improving the fortunes of the national team as it is in Indian where the majority of them ply their trade. FIFA’s commitment to building new academies will go someway into helping the long term development of the Indian game. But for now the World’s second fastest growing economy has a long, long way to go before it can be considered a serious footballing nation.