Field notes

Cricket still No. 1, but football gaining ground in India

In India where cricket is a passion, football is slowly becoming popular. Football academies and clubs have popped up in different cities, giving young Indians a chance to play the sport.
A young player at a tournament organised by the Morning Star Football Academy in Delhi last month. Indian national cricket captain Virat Kohli (far left) and cricketer Umesh Yadav playing football during a practice session in London in June, on the e
Indian national cricket captain Virat Kohli (far left) and cricketer Umesh Yadav playing football during a practice session in London in June, on the eve of the ICC Champions Trophy Final cricket match between India and Pakistan. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSEST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY
A young player at a tournament organised by the Morning Star Football Academy in Delhi last month. Indian national cricket captain Virat Kohli (far left) and cricketer Umesh Yadav playing football during a practice session in London in June, on the e
Indian footballer Sunil Chhetri (third from left) after scoring a goal during the AFC Asian Cup qualifier match between India and Kyrgyzstan in Bangalore in June. The captain of India’s national football team overtook England’s Wayne Rooney to be ranked No. 4 among active players worldwide in goals scored for national sides. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSEPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

While cricket still rules, football is winning over more fans amid moves to boost the sport

In India, cricket rules.

Cricket players, including retired star Sachin Tendulkar and national captain Virat Kohli, headline advertising campaigns, staring out of billboards like demi-gods.

They are so famous that even people outside India who do not follow the sport may have heard of them.

The same can hardly be said of Sunil Chhetri, even though the captain of India's national football team overtook England's Wayne Rooney in June to be ranked No. 4 among active players worldwide in goals scored for national sides.

That has not stopped 16-year-old Animesh Ranjan Singh from aspiring to be a football star.

The Delhi student hopes to get into a local football academy.

"I feel alive when I play football. For me, it's about expressing myself," said Animesh, who dreams of playing for Barcelona football club and meeting his favourite player, Ronaldinho.

A young player at a tournament organised by the Morning Star Football Academy in Delhi last month. Indian national cricket captain Virat Kohli (far left) and cricketer Umesh Yadav playing football during a practice session in London in June, on the e
A young player at a tournament organised by the Morning Star Football Academy in Delhi last month.  ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

  • 216m 

    Number of Indians who tuned in to watch the Indian Super League's matches last year.

  • 207m 

    Number of Indians who tuned in to watch the Indian Super League's matches in 2015.

While cricket is still the undisputed top dog in India, changes may be afoot as the world's most popular sport wins more fans in the world's second-most populous nation, whose sporting potential has been stifled by a lack of government support.

In recent years, more young Indians like Animesh are discovering the allure of football, especially with the launch three years ago of the Indian Super League, a football league made up of 10 professional teams.

The sport is expected to get a further boost when India hosts the Under-17 World Cup in October.

Football's fan base is growing in India, where 65 per cent of its population is under 35 and exposed to different sports through television.

Mr Sepp Blatter, the former president of Fifa, has called India the "sleeping giant" of world football.

Indeed, football and India go a long way back, with the sport introduced by the British in the late 19th century.

It caught on in a handful of states like West Bengal, where football has traditionally been as popular as, if not more so than, cricket.

India used to be the top football power in Asia. Its national team were champions at the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962.

It could well have appeared at the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil as Asia's sole representative, but chose not to go - not because its footballers could not afford boots, as a popular story goes, but because the tournament was not seen to be that prestigious back then.

FANCY FOOTWORK

India has since fallen behind the likes of South Korea, Japan and China in football.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, for instance, the country of 1.25 billion people won only a silver for badminton and a bronze for wrestling.

But there are signs of a possible revival.

Wins over Cambodia and Myanmar this year helped India rise to No. 96 in the Fifa rankings - its best position in two decades.

In comparison, Singapore is currently ranked 169th.

The improved performances of the national team have helped to fuel the sport's popularity.

"I find that the popularity of football has really grown in the last two to three years," said Mr Pushkar Gosain, a software engineer who spends his spare time training children in football in Delhi.

"More and more children want to play."

Certified as a coach two years ago, the 26-year-old opened Morning Star Football Academy. He has 20 students now.

Some young Indians say they prefer football as the slow pace of cricket is no match for it.

Mr Kumar Saurav, 19, who was playing football in Delhi, told The Straits Times: "Cricket is boring. In football, every player is active."

Still, football in India has a long way to go to match cricket in infrastructure and investment.

"The infrastructure - playing ground, stadium facilities - needs to be improved throughout the country if we are to spread the game across India," said Mr Utpal Kumar Ganguli, secretary of the Indian Football Association (West Bengal). "Indian football needs to have corporate support and for this, it has to be marketed among corporate India."

He added: "If the Indian senior team continues to perform well and improve their Fifa ranking further, youngsters will be encouraged to play the game. Finally, Indian football needs some iconic stars, which cricket has."

MORE GOALS AHEAD

Improving the state of football in India has become a national goal.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in one of his weekly radio addresses to the nation in May last year, promised to take the sport to every village in India.

In May this year, he visited Germany and said in a statement after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "We are also working with Germany to improve our sporting prowess, especially in football."

 

There are signs that corporate money is starting to trickle into the sport. In June, Indian motorcycle and scooter manufacturer Hero MotoCorp renewed its US$25 million (S$34 million) sponsorship deal for the Indian Super League for three years.

The founder and chairman of the firm that runs the league is Mrs Nita Ambani, a socialite and wife of India's richest man Mukesh Ambani.

Viewership and attendance for matches are also going up.

Last year, 216 million Indians tuned in to watch the league's matches, up from 207 million the year before, according to data from Star India, the official broadcaster.

Initiatives to improve the standards of football in India and find young talent are also coming into greater focus.

In February this year, the government, together with All India Football Federation, launched the Mission 11 Million. Under this initiative, football will be introduced and played in 12,000 schools in 37 cities across the country.

The federation is even starting a Baby League.

"We realised that although we have academies and a lot of clubs are coming up, they are targeted at the age group of 12 to 13 and above," said Mr Kushal Das, general secretary of the All India Football Federation. "There was nothing for those in the eight-to-12 age group, like in all developed football nations."

He is optimistic about the future of football in India.

"I think if we continue in the same developmental mode, it's just a matter of time before India becomes a strong footballing nation in Asia and maybe in the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2017, with the headline 'India's new goal '. Print Edition | Subscribe