Manvir Singh of ATK Mohun Bagan being tackled by Chennaiyin FC players during a match at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Chennai. | Photo Credit: PTI
Several years ago, I tried out for the I-League’s Mumbai FC on a whim. Overwhelmed at the 80 players in attendance, the coaches cut players on the spot without seeing them in action. (“Where do you play?” one coach asked me, to which I responded “Canada.” It was a sleight of hand; the coach likely thought I played professionally abroad, when in fact, I am Canadian.)
After a three-hour wait, I was given 10 minutes to play 11 on 11, with players I had never met before. I performed atrociously. Somehow, I advanced to the next stage.
This anecdote is symptomatic of what needs to change in Indian football for it to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals. In their new book, Awakening the Blue Tigers: India’s Quest for Football’s Holy GrailNeel Shah and Gaurav Gala cite the need to strengthen the professional football landscape, expand coaching education programs and establish an expansive scouting network.
This book serves as an introduction to football in India, with chapters on hosting youth World Cups, conversations with notable Indians in the ecosystem, and quirky vignettes from “football hotbeds like West Bengal, Kerala, Goa and the Northeast”. These include 20,000 fans showing up at the Kolkata airport to greet Pele in 1977, the 3,50,000-strong Facebook group for Brazil fans in Kerala (including a woman named Brazilia) and the Kerala government proposing ayurvedic treatment to cure Neymar’s injuries.
Can football do cricket?
In citing the Indian team once beating European powerhouse Ajax FC, or the 20 million supporters of Manchester United in India, Shah and Gala believe the interest is there, but continuous infrastructure building is needed. They cite Iceland’s development of coaching education, and Germany’s youth development system as case studies, even as they acknowledge the “well-run academies by Tata Steel, Reliance, JSW Group” within the country. A “clearly defined playing style and philosophy” with roles will help “maximise talent,” FC Goa’s Ravi Puskur adds, in the air of FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy.
If Shah and Gala’s passion is contagious, their hypothesis on what is required for success should have been more focused and based on evidence (along with tighter editing). Despite investment, countries like Mexico, Egypt and Serbia historically underperform, weakening the argument that better infrastructure leads to international success.
Morocco players celebrate their win following a penalty shoot-out in one of the matches, at the Qatar 2022 World Cup at Education City Stadium, Al-Rayyan, Doha. | Photo Credit: AFP
Early on, they acknowledge that the Kapil Dev-led 1983 cricket team “sparked a cricket revolution in India that channelised most media coverage, corporate spending and government support”. Should India focus on having one Indian playing in a European league? Or should it change policies on including foreign-born Indians, with the success of Morocco at the World Cup — “the only team in the tournament with more than half of its 26 players born in other countries” — as proof of immediate success? Or maybe create a spectacle the way the IPL and Pro Kabaddi have, especially galvanizing around an India-Pakistan rivalry game? Perhaps these are more efficient ways to generate returns.
Undoubtedly, India is a “sleeping giant,” as one FIFA president stated. What it takes to wake it up continues to remain unknown.
Awakening the Blue Tigers: India’s Quest for Football’s Holy Grail; Neel Shah, Gaurav Gala, Om Books, ₹495.
The reviewer is an HR Consultant, and men’s football coach.