Indian football needs the captain of national team to plead the country’s citizens to watch their match today. So what exactly went wrong?
Indian football team finds itself at 97th position in the FIFA Men’s rankings today. We see it as an improvement, though. Four years ago, Indian football hit rock bottom, when they were placed at 171st. The setting up of football clubs, Bengaluru FC in particular, with new talents emerging in both I-League and Indian Super Leage (ISL) have since been leading the change in the Indian footballing culture. Yet, the average ranking of Indian men’s football team since the creation of FIFA World Rankings has been 132nd.
But has it always been the same?
In 1948, India football team participated in the Olympic Games. This was the first Olympics to be held in 12-years time due to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Indians were unknown to the world of football, and they entered the stadium barefoot to take on a European team, called France.
Various historians write that Indian football team didn’t know any other way but to play barefoot. Yet, India put on an excellent fight, and in the 70th minute, Sarangapani Raman scored an equaliser, before Rene Persillion scored a late winner for France.
It might have been a preliminary round but the match was long remembered for India’s impressive performance without boots. This was also India’s first official match as an independent nation. It might have made a positive impact on the viewers, but not on FIFA, the international governing body for football. FIFA told the AIFF that they won’t be allowed to participate in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil if they don’t wear boots.
In the year 1950, FIFA struggled to bring teams to the World Cup. Many withdrew citing financial reasons, having lost a great deal of wealth and human resource in the World War. FIFA reserved one spot for Asian teams, and three out of four (Burma, Philippines, Indonesia and India) had already backed out. India, hence earned an automatic qualification.
But India withdrew as well.
For years, we assumed that FIFA didn’t allow India to participate because the team wanted to play barefoot. Some also believe that India, too, lacked the financial resources to travel to Brazil. However, it was later understood that the organisers were ready to bear the cost of travel. An extensive study from Sports Illustrated India reports that All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided not to send the team, citing “disagreements over team selection, and insufficient practice time.”
The-then Indian football team captain, Sailen Manna, says that the team had no idea about the World Cup. The general idea among the team was that the Olympics were everything, and nothing is bigger than The Games. He also insists that if the team was better informed, they would’ve taken the initiative [to go to the World Cup] themselves.
The opportunity was served on the platter for the AIFF, only to be squandered by the ill-informed officials of the federation. The after-effects of the decision are still massively felt in Indian football, who haven’t been near the touching distance at qualifying for a FIFA World Cup. The impact of not playing in the 1950 World Cup has been painfully intriguing.
India would’ve been placed with Italy, Sweden and Paraguay in the World Cup, had they participated in the tournament. Italy were forced to play a weaker side, as Torino, an Italian club suffered a horrific plane crash an year prior to the World Cup. Paraguay were also on a developing stage in international football, and Sweden was the only strong competition in the group. This was India’s chance to make their mark in international football as an independent nation.
A decent run of performances in the tournament in Brazil would’ve also paved the way for the AIFF to undertake footballing reforms in the country. India, at that point, were the top-ranked Asian side in football. A year later, India won in the Asian Games, and repeated the feat in 1962. However, this was India’s only chance to prove their mettle against high quality international opposition.
India entered barefoot on the field again in the 1952 Olympics in Finland. This time, however, they were humbled 10-1 by Yugoslavia. After such a heavy defeat, AIFF made boots mandatory for participation in domestic tournaments.
In 1954, India were invited by the FIFA to participate in the World Cup again. This time, though, the AIFF accepted the proposal and even communicated their acceptance of invitation through a letter. The problem? The date of submission of acceptance had already passed. India was not allowed to participate in the tournament.
To this date, the carefree approach among the caretakers of Indian football still persists.
Two years later, India finished fourth in the Summer Olympics in Australia. However, they were awarded a bye in the first round due to withdrawal of their opposition, Hungary. They defeated host nation Australia 4-2, before finally bowing down again to Yugoslavia, this time 4-1, in the semifinal. India lost the Bronze medal match 3-0 to Bulgaria.
By this time, the Olympics were realised as a trial tournament for nation’s young talent. Hence, most top teams would send their U-23 players to play in the tournament. Moreover, major European and South American teams didn’t play in the 1956 Olympics at all.
India continued their dominance in Asia, but could never ensure a World Cup qualification. In the 1960 Olympics, which was India’s last appearance in the tournament since, India played a 1-1 draw against a young French side, and lost 3-1 and 2-1 to Peru and Hungary respectively. In the 1970 Asian Games, India won the Bronze medal, but the graph of Indian football has never seen an upward shift since.
India used to beat teams like Japan and South Korea on a regular basis during the era of Golden Generation (1948-62). Today, these teams participate in the World Cup regularly. This year, Japan reached the round-of-16 of the tournament, and South Korea defeated the 2014 champions Germany 2-0. India, meanwhile, was playing in an ‘Intercontinental Cup’, during which Sunil Chhetri had to make a video inviting his countrymen to come to stadiums.
The fall of Indian football is a direct consequence of the invariable attitude of the officials at helm throughout the years. While the other Asian teams continued to enthuse structure into their football, India continued to blame the lack of infrastructure and sponsorships, while conveniently negating the impact of nation’s footballing greats.
12 years after their last medal in the Asian Games, the AIFF formed the Nehru Cup in a bid to bring the footballing standards back to their highest level in the country. Top teams participated in the tournament, but it hardly did help.
And why would it? India’s first domestic league competition was established in 1996. Until then, Indian clubs used to participate in IFA Shield and Federation Cup tournaments, and other national and state/local competitions. Without a formalised league structure, it was unreasonable to expect the national football team to compete against top international giants. Subsequently, India never won the Nehru Cup until it was temporarily abolished in 1997. India’s highest position in the five-nations tournament was fourth.
In the recent years, there has been some development in Indian football and its effects are on show. India broke into Top-100 in the World Rankings for the first time in over twenty years. But India is still a long way from leaving their mark on the footballing map.
‘Lakshya’ was announced by AIFF in 2014 with the aim to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. However, it has now being brushed aside with no mention of the mission whatsoever. While it raises question on the accountability of the federation, it also instil concerns over the lack of transparency within the organisation.
It is evident from the fact that Indian Super League was formally announced as a tournament to popularise the growth of football in the country. After its success, AIFF contemplated its merger with the I-League, and now they seem adamant to make ISL the only major domestic league in the country.
For starters, there still persists a massive turmoil over the existence of two separate leagues in the country. The lack of attention on the lower league divisions due to the existence of two top-tiers in the country halts the growth of smaller clubs, which are already hit with financial restrictions. The overemphasis on Indian Super League has already started to make an adverse impact on the cash-inflow of I-League clubs.
It is time that AIFF realises that it stops taking the sport for granted, because people clearly haven’t. The ardent supporters of Indian football know about their golden generation, and want to see the revival of the sport in the country.