India – football and the class barriers

Dileep Premachandran writes in the Times, on Indian football heroes (click here for article)…

The talent is there at junior level, too, and although Baichung Bhutia, the finest Indian player of his generation, rarely got off the bench during a three-year stay at Bury from 1999, few would be surprised if Manchester United unearthed the next Mohammad Salim, the dazzling winger who caused a stir at Celtic in the 1930s, or another Chuni Goswami, the Mohun Bagan star coveted by Tottenham Hotspur in the 1960s.

Indeed, good to read such stuff. But the question that follows is, why hasn’t there been more of such Salims and Chunis?

The real problem, in my opinion, is that football (which has never been a game for the classes, but a popular, populist game for the masses in the rest of the world) has two distinctly different levels of following in India. Neither of who speak to each other. Or if they do, it’s generally only through whispers.

The first are the people who watch and love the game in a way others in Barcelona and Manchester and Liverpool and Rio and Buenos Aires and Accra and Hamburg love it, as player/supporter/fans. These are the people who have a genuine club following and watch games played in India by Indian teams, by going to the stadium or on TV, whenever it is available. Mostly comprising of the lower-income masses (as different from the moneyed classes, a very tacky way of putting it I agree, and will edit this whenever I find a better description), these are the people who fill up the Cooperage, the Salt Lake stadium for the Bengal derby, and even the Kanteerava at times. It is from them that the majority of the football-players of the country come in.

The second are the classes. They support the ManUniteds, the Arsenals, the Barcelonas, the Juventuses and the Real Madrids. At ease with the world, the common passion of the world is theirs too. They look down upon Indian football as poor (which it is in comparison, in all honesty), and don’t have any cultural or emotional attachment to Indian football whatsoever. They would never have gone to a stadium to watch a football match (or rather, better put, never an Indian football match), and a large majority has probably kicked a football only a meagre few times in their lives. They do genuinely love the game though.

The advent of the cable channels (and therefore European football) have certainly made the classes attracted to football, but it has also alienated them even more than before from Indian football. They would rather spend big money going to a pub to watch a North London derby than spending a fraction of that on the National Football League match that was being held in the stadium a mere mile from the pub. It’s only in Goa and Bengal and Kerala that the classes are somewhat interested in the local game.

And really, I would not blame them. Why would they waste their money on a distinctly below-par match on the ground if they do not have an affiliation to a club? It is not about the money, it is about the game, it’s about the entertainment, the emotions. As we say in marketing-speak, it’s about the bang for the buck.

But the net result is that the classes that watch the game on TV and at the pub, do not contribute at all to the development of football in the country.

So then, what does contribute? Well, the class barriers in India are as prevalent as before, but with the advent of globalization and multi-channelled television, European football is now easily accessible to the masses too. Many, many lower-income houses have cable (thus ESPN) anyway these days**.

And therefore, the next generations of Indian footballers will have seen the exploits of Gerrard and Ronaldinho and Eto’o on TV, and thus being another Sisir Ghosh or IM Vijayan or Bruno Coutinho might not be good enough for them, their dreams might be coloured differently from the green-and-maroon of Mohun Bagan, their dreams might just be the colour of the blaugrana of Barcelona.

And really, we just need one name. A George Weah is a once-in-a-lifetime player, and it would be wrong to expect a Weah to be born in some corner of India soon. But possibly even a Benayoun, why, even a Kenwyne Jones would do very well too. India is too big not to follow the lead. Remember, initially there was nobody… and then there was Jeev (tied 9th at the PGA championship! Good job!). And soon after there was Atwal, and Randhawa, and Shiv, and SSP, and Rahil…. We just need one star, an average premiership star will do just fine. We just need one name.

The future might just be bright.


** And please don’t give me statistics of how many poor Indian homes don’t have TV or cable. It’s the comparatively lower-income, and not the poor from whom the footballing masses of India come.

And on the same topic, am reading this book called Goalless, by Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandyopadhyay, which chronicles football in India, right from the days of Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikary to the 1911 glory of Shibdas Bhaduri’s Mohun Bagan; to the brief encounters at the world stage by those teams of Sailen Manna, T Ao, Chuni Goswami, Peter Thangaraj, Jarnail Singh and PK Bannerjee; to the, indeed, ‘Goalless’ current stage. Will write a review when I am done reading it.]


6 thoughts on “India – football and the class barriers

  1. I agree. The corporates support cricket because they have done well over the last 20 years and it started with the 1983 WC, which was, in all honesty, a fluke. So you need that something special to break the vicious circle. With money, we can break out and then we won’t have stars in spite of the system but because of the system.
    I’d go so far to say – give Lalit Modi a 2 year stint with every sporting association in the country. He may make his millions but he will do something good for the sport, which will be many times better than what is being done currently.

  2. Pingback: Goalless at Blogbharti

  3. Pingback: While you were not looking… « Sporting thoughts and otherwise …

  4. I totally agree.I had once written that we are passionate about football but only of the kind played by the very best. In fact will request your views on some other arguments I made in the same post –

    And you will not believe it but I happen to be reading the same book right now. Just happened to see it in the bookstore in Kolkata Airport a fortnight back.

    You have mentioned your collection of books, movies and documentaries on sports. I have a small one myself. I need to find out what all I have missed. Would you mind sharing your list.

  5. Acommonfan, certainly I would.

    Also, I have been planning to set up a shelfari kind of a thing with my books / documentaries / movies on sports… Will do so soon.

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