Football Comes Home, And With It Delirious Frenzy
For millions of young Indian football fanatics, FIFA Under 17 World Cup 2017 (October 6 to October 28) is the real deal. This is the first time they are going to see the world of football with the top 24 teams participating, at home. And the best part is that their own team is going to play as well.
The desire among the football fans to see India being associated with the big football league is strong. The biggest achievement for an Indian was when Bhaichung Bhutia, (former Indian national team captain and the biggest domestic footballing star) got some international recognition. Roped in by Bury in 1999, he was the first Indian footballer to sign a contract with a European football club.
As football lovers we have long been denied the best of the game. I hear stories of football legend Pele once coming to India and playing an exhibition game. That was in 1977, he played an exhibition match with Mohan Bagan, representing a club called NY Cosmos.
We hear about the glory days of Indian football when India won the Asian Games Gold medal in football way back in 1951. Another good moment was when India finished fourth in 1956 Olympics. But the reality is that generations have passed since, waiting to see India play at the world stage.
Our passion for football was hardly satiated through the years by the domestic football scene dominated by football clubs from Bengal.
The eighties and the nineties were spent gate crashing into Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium to watch the uneven contests of Indian National team being shown its lowly place by some of the top football club teams, playing under the banner of Super Soccer series, brought to India by Indian Football Association. I remember watching Bochum from Germany, PSV Eindhoven from Netherlands and Sao Paulo from Brazil showing us glimpses of what world football is all about in an unequal contest with Indian National teams.
For the best part of our growing up years, we were left following Nigerian footballers such as Cheema Okeri, and some Indian stars like Krishanu Dey (Indian Maradona), Shyam Thapa, Monoranjan Bhattacharjee, I M Vijayan (Indian Black Pearl as Pele was known) and Bhaichung Bhutia.
The recent emergence of Indian Super League has only brought in some former footballing greats as coaches (such as Zico and Roberto Carlos) and some fading stars such as Diego Forlan tour land as players. The Indian footballing fans still look at the far-off shores for the real deal.
Indian youth today, especially of the urban variety, pay close attention to European club football. English Premier Club Manchester United has some of the staunchest supporters among India’s youth. Barcelona, Liverpool, Juventus and Bryan Munich are also popular; Ronaldo, Messi, Pogba, Neymar and Pirlo often being subjects of heated discussions. That is the potential the FIFA wants to tap. That is why India has been chosen to be the host of the under 17 FIFA World Cup.
No matter we are today world beaters in cricket, the reality is that the larger world does not even know about the game. Even today only a handful of nations play cricket and there too except for the Indian subcontinent teams, cricket is far from being the number one game in terms of money or popularity.
Field hockey is our national sport officially, but again, though played in many more countries when compared to cricket and even being an Olympic Sport, it has only limited following at the world stage. Once we were passionate about hockey and somewhere that passionate connection still exists, but the reality is we are no longer world beaters in hockey. Though we still are good enough to play at the world level. But football is a different ball game altogether.
Even though we as a footballing nation stand nowhere on the world stage (we are ranked 107 in the world as of now), the passion for the sport among our people knows no boundaries.
The game of Football, called the beautiful game, o jogo bonito (as the football crazy Brazilians call it), is the real king of the sporting world. Its shining presence is all over the world and we Indians, as a sport loving people, have only dwelled in its reflected glory. The passion for the game of football among the Indian fans will match any in the world. Thanks to the coming into existence of live television, whenever the Football World Cup takes place (which is once in four years), no matter how far away from our land, the whole country is griped by football fever.
At other times, our urban youth follows the club football scene in Europe with unbridled passion. The youth not only wears the T-shirts of the colours of these European Clubs, carrying the names of stars such as Neymar, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Benzema and Rooney, but also have deep knowledge about the inside going ons in these clubs.
Saurabh Thapliyal (35), a resident of Dwarka, Delhi is one such avid fan. He has a twitter handle by his name through which he supports an English Premier League team Blackburn Rovers. Says he, “Last year I got a call from BBC London. They wanted me to be part of a live discussion on television about the club. First, I thought it to be a prank. But it was real. Next day I went live on BBC and commented on the poor management of the club. I was thrilled beyond words by the whole experience.” It is no surprise then that he has booked tickets for all the three India matches taking place in Delhi.
The players playing in the tournament from some of the leading footballing nations of the world, such as Germany, Brazil and France, among others are most likely be the future superstars of the game, dominating the international club football and world football scene.
India qualified for the tournament on the basis of being the host nation. The plain truth is that there was no realistic chance of it qualifying on merit. We had recently broken into top 100 FIFA World Football rankings. But a few weeks ago, we slipped 10 places down, to our present 107 ranking.
The players playing in the under 17 World Cup may not be big stars yet, but they will definitely be in a few years. And once that happens, having seen them play in real, we will have at least the satisfaction of sharing some part of their glory, the glory of the world’s most popular sport, a glory that has remained lost to us till now.