FIFA World Cup – global sport’s biggest spectacle comes alive once every four years. With its latest edition concluding in Russia last week, the World Cup’s place in public consciousness is for everyone to see. Even the concurrence of Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final competing for airwaves couldn’t remove the sheen off France’s glorious victory against Croatia.
The World Cup has for many decades caught the imagination of Indian viewers. Data shows nationals of India as amongst top 10 countries buying tickets in Russia, even without qualifying for the event. With over 200 million tuning in last month – football fever is surely on a rise. This surge in popularity may have fortified thanks to the relatively recent inception of two professional leagues (the I-League in 2007 and the Indian Soccer League or ISL in 2013) as well as 6 Indian cities hosting the U-17 FIFA World Cup last October.
Even though the beautiful game’s International avatar is a winner for Indian viewers, football itself is yet to gain widespread acceptance as a professional sport.
Poor performance of the national team, of course, has a major role to play. We have never played in the World Cup, barring the oft repeated myth of 1950 when the team after qualifying was allegedly not allowed to play barefoot (This is false. India only qualified “by default” as other eligible Asian nations withdrew. The Indian team later also withdrew due to All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) reluctance to send the team to an event they ironically considered a “low-priority”!). During the 2014 World Cup, India could not even make it through to the first round of qualifiers. This year was no different. We finished last in our group in the second round of Asian qualifiers.
It shouldn’t then come as a surprise when captain Sunil Chhetri makes an emotional plea to viewers to watch when India’s national side competes. He realizes any support quickly becomes a chicken and egg situation.
Where Do We Fail?
In sports the failure to win is in most cases an effect. Causation lies in lack of deployed capital which leads to insufficient infrastructure & training, low wages, and at best patchy exit options. A way to analyze the failure of football in India may be to compare AIFF’s finances with one of our most successful but flawed sports governing institutions i.e. the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
The BCCI is funded on the back of massive sponsorship deals currently including Star India, Oppo, Paytm and Nike. The total investment will rake in c. INR24,000cr (c.$4.0billion) over the next few years. BCCI’s annual spend in 2015-16 (as per its last published Annual Report) amounted to INR1,253cr – around 20 times the annual spend of AIFF! Media rights funded almost 50% of the formers expenses. BCCI’s annual budget in turn goes to State Cricket Associations (INR722cr or 57% of total), and a 2nd block towards players compensation, training, and other infrastructure (INR380cr or 30% of total).
The difference in sizes of the two governing bodies is obvious and staggering.
Moreover, cricket benefits greatly from the establishment of academies, clubs, district, and state teams competing in championships like the Ranji and Duleep Trophy, giving seamless transition to talented players from an early age. The mega successful IPL gives the additional optionality of becoming an IPL specialist if chance in the national team turns elusive. No comparable grass root level structure for football players exists.
State-of-art facility and quality coaching is another missing piece. Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the governing body of Asian Football issues coaching licenses at different levels like Pro, A, B and C. India, until 2015 only had 5 AFC pro coaches, 47 AFC A license coaches, 196 AFC B license coaches and 1059 AFC C license coaches. To give some context, England has 1 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) licensed coach for every 10,000 people. Whereas in Iceland, which has been a huge success story off late when it comes to football, the number is 1 UEFA B licensed coach for every 500 people. For India, the proportion is quite staggering – 1 licensed coach for 1,000,000 people.
The Football Association (FA) England reported a turnover for £351 million for the year 2016-17, of which £127 million (INR1,143 crores) were to be invested back into the game. FA also received government funding worth c. £30 million (INR271cr) each year from various public organizations like Sport England, FA Skills Programme and Coaching Programme. Other than these, the English FA recently struck a deal in February 2018 worth £5.14 billion (INR46,516cr) to broadcast the Premier League in the UK. A good chunk of this money will be invested back into the sport for further development and sustainability of football.
Every club in England, except for a few, have a youth team structure at several levels like U-10, U-15, U-17, U-19 and U-21, which host leagues for different levels which allow competition, growth and development of players. This allows players to progress in a structured manner and even transition seamlessly to other youth teams.
Another success story is that of Iceland. Iceland has been investing in sports centers for many years now which is evidenced by their stellar performance in the past couple of years. In 2016, they qualified for the UEFA Euro Championship for the very first time, and even made it to the quarter finals beating England 2-1 in the Round of 16. This year they qualified for the World Cup. Even as they were unable to make out of the group stage, the highlight was that they held a full-strength Argentina to 1-1 which is a commendable feat for a nation which was considered a weakling some years back.
It will be worthwhile for policy makers to seriously study these precedents to extrapolate valid learnings for India.
Where Are We?
Indian football had seen a 64% surge in sponsorships in football in 2017. Multiple initiatives have been undertaken by AIFF to promote football at the elementary level. An outreach program, Mission XI Million, has been kicked off to popularize the sport across schools. Other than this, an under-15 league and under-18 league has been starting, with plans for an under-13 league on the way. Lately, international clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool FC, Paris St Germain, FC Barcelona, Boca Juniors have set up youth centers in India. These centers should hopefully help youngsters prepare for the future and create the bench strength necessary for a world class team.
What Next? Where Will The Money Come From?
Another step to ensure greater participation in the sport would be setting up youth teams for different age groups within teams in the I-League and ISL. This shall enable India to participate in the AFC championships and tournaments. According to the present AFC rules, for a country to participate in any tournament or championship, the participant country must have at least 3 youth teams.
The government would not and should not take the entire onus of increasing finances. Corporate partnership must be increased. Big companies should be encouraged to commit to individual performance milestones to benefit Indian football (and/or Indian sport in general) such as setup of stadiums, subsidizing coach licensing and training, funding team travels, “adopting” talented players etc. Government should set the framework, but companies should deploy the capital. Pressure should be eased off CSR initiatives which are anyways mis-represented. Tax incentives can be linked to sports patronage. Mentor companies should have rights to take benefit of sponsorship deals (which would come inbound with improved performance) whenever they come in return for early-bird support.
Success in football should be looked at as a soft power building tool by the government. It is time the beautiful game’s global impact and India’s rising stature are aligned.