Getting off on the wrong foot: Can India qualify for the World Cup?

AS THE WARSAW EURO 2012 stadium opened over the weekend, patriots and football fans all over the world are eagerly awaiting the 14th European Championship, taking place between 8 June – 1 July.

Sixteen nations will go head to head and after the winning team is crowned, an even greater audience will be setting their eyes on the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

But people of one particular country are usually sidelined when it comes to the big game, although football is the third most viewed sport on their TV sets: India.

Football is the second most popular sport in India, after cricket. Yet Indians have never been able to rejoice the presence of their Indian National Football team, governed by the All India Football Federation and a member of the Asian Football Confederation, on the prestigious green grassed global stage of the World Cup.

Indian National Football Team

India’s football hero

India even has its very own football hero: Baichung Bhutia. The recently retired 34-year old Sikkim striker was the first player from the subcontinent to join a European football club, when he signed to Bury FC in 1999 and played in the team until 2002. He is also the only Indian footballer to play over a 100 matches and India won a premier South Asian championship three times under his captaincy.

Before Bhutia’s presence, India has come close to qualifying in the major game. In 1950, the country qualified for the FIFA World Cup. But the players turned down the offer because of, as some have said, the expense of travelling to the UK.

There were also rumours that Indians are accustomed to playing the sport barefoot and felt uncomfortable with the strict requirement of wearing football boots. Other sources claimed that poor infrastructure, insufficient planning, politics and a lack of investment still hinder the country’s chances of qualifying.

India’s position in FIFA’s world football ranking is a low 162. But historically and in modern times, India have proven they can play football.

The country finished fourth in a football tournament held by the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. They also qualified for the 1960 Rome Olympics, won the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games gold medal and reached the semi-finals in the following two Asian Games. They also set a record in 1956 with their semi-final match as the best performance by an Asian team in an Olympic football tournament.

Therefore, football is not a novel sport in India. It actually dates as far back to the 19th century in the capital of West Bengal, Calcutta, now renamed as Kolkata. The city is the home of Indian football from when the British introduced the sport to the nation and army teams played the first matches.

The playing of football was viewed as India’s way of taking a firm, patriotic stand. In 1854, the first football game was organised between Calcutta Club of Civilians and the Gentlemen of Barrackpore. And the first football club of India, Calcutta FC, was born in 1872, making it older than many prestigious football organisations such as FIFA. The renowned team, Mohun Bugan Athletic Club (later named National Club of India) was formed in Kolkata.

Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, 1908

Dimming of a bright future?

In recent times, it seems that the instinctively talented youth teams of India provide hope of a bright future in the sport, but the lack of sufficient coaching at the grass-roots level and unfair politics stunt their potential growth.

Bhutia told the BBC: “I was lucky in that I got a scholarship due to football and we had coaches in school, but it wasn’t the same as European kids get. Most Indian kids have this passion but without the qualified coaches at the grass-roots level.

“If only they could catch players at a young age because I definitely see a lot of talent here – even more talented than English players at a young age,” he added.

So India is not just all about cricket bats and Bollywood. Despite the historical relevance of football, it seems something is stopping India stepping into a World Cup stadium today. Aside from speculation, nobody seems to be able to pinpoint the real reason why, but talent certainly isn’t one of them.

Let us fans of India hold onto the hope that one day the country will proudly stride onto the grounds watched by the world, sporting their brand new football boots.

– Monica Sarkar

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