In the first part of this series, we took a look at the parallel history of Indian football and cricket. Cricket overtook football in terms of popularity completely in the 1980s, and has increased its popularity by leaps and bounds ever since. Cricket’s overpowering popularity has reduced other sports in India to almost non-entities.
It is easy to blame cricket because of the high exposure it enjoys, but is it prudent to blame one game for the poor condition of another?
Cricket enjoys overwhelming media exposure
One of the most common complaints regarding Indian football has been the unavailability of live action on television. Never has this been more evident than the current season; I-League, the premier football competition in India, is yet to find a broadcasting partner. Local TV channels in West Bengal have showed some of the games held in Kolkata, but rest of the matches remain invisible on TV. Terms like television revenue, which is one of the biggest sources of income for European clubs, are unheard of in Indian football.
Compare this with the unchallenged TV time enjoyed by cricket. Be it test cricket, one-day or new sensation T20, cricket matches attract millions of viewers irrespective of its importance. The Indian Premier League broke new barriers in terms of advertising and TRP rating. Currently, IPL is second only to NBA in terms of salaries paid to players – ahead of EPL or La Liga. Valued at a whopping $ 4.11 billion, it also opened a new vista by becoming first sports event to be shown on youtube.
It is a common practice among Indian football fans to blame cricket for lack of TV time for football. While it is a valid cause, it is unfair to blame the game. Football has had its chance, and failed to take it because of unprofessionalism. Zee Sports showed I-League till last season, but their contract was terminated prematurely. AIFF didn’t bother to find a replacement before terminating Zee’s contract. In mid 2000s, IFA Shield was shown live by ESPN-Star. ESS chose not to continue their practice because of the appalling ground conditions and standard of play in the tournament. IFA Shield is a tournament which has lost its importance because of shabby organizing in recent times. Is it cricket’s fault that teams do not choose to apply them fully in a tournament? Hardly.
IPL is immensely popular
Even the government should share blame for the lack of broadcasting of football. DD Sports used to telecast NFL when it was started, but they haven’t stepped up to do it this season. Private TV channels are working for profit, and they will concentrate their efforts on areas where they will get more revenue (i.e cricket). It is in such a scenario that other sports require government help, but DD Sports finds telecasting decade old matches more suitable than live sports.
India is a country where you will see pictures of Ajit Agarkar scoring a century on the last day of a drawn test match in the front page of a newspaper. Football news largely goes unreported, or are relegated to the back pages. This is highly irresponsible behaviour from the fourth estate. During football world cup, newspapers usually start dedicated coverages of the world cup, choosing to ignore local football for the rest of the time. Regional papers often have better coverage of football matches than more popular English papers. The AIFF, on the other had, haven’t played its part here either. AIFF doesn’t have a proper PR or media team, and neither does it have a well maintained website.
“India” is more successful in cricket
Winning international tournaments have been a major driving force behind the popularity of cricket. It is one of the very few sports where “India” can achieve regular success. Unarguably, it is much more difficult to achieve similar international success in football. Over two hundred nations are part of FIFA, but only eight have won the world cup. However, an utter lack of activity for national team isn’t advisable. Irrespective of the result, fans from all over India have a team to support when the national team plays. An average fan doesn’t ponder about the number of teams that play a game; to him, what matters is his nation’s victory.
Club football in India is not spread across the nation. It is mostly concentrated in West Bengal, Goa, Kerala, Maharashtra, North Eastern states or Punjab have a noticeable presence in top division football, but lack consistent performances. Heavily populated states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat are completely oblivious to the local football scenario. Cities like Hyderabad and Mysore, which used to be powers half a century back, have ceased to exist on the football map. In a country like this, only the national team can generate interest in all states. Sadly, the national team has been neglected criminally in the last two decades.
Among other self deprecating acts, the decision to scrap Nehru Cup in 1997 remains one of the worst decisions by AIFF. That year, the Nehru Cup attracted record breaking crowds in Kochin – reminiscent of the glory days of the 80s. Teams like Ghana, Uzbekistan and Iraq participated, while India performed admirably. The Nehru Cup was one of the very few tournaments in India which exposed more people to the national team. In the 1990’s, scores of cricket tournaments were organized in India – often involving more than two teams. Tournaments like Titan Cup or Hero Cup attracted crowds by the thousands. Clubs can also be held accountable, as they have often delayed or refused to release a player for the national team.
Blue Tigers need more focus
Things didn’t improve in the early 2000s. AIFF tried to organize the ambitious Millennium Cup, involving teams like Bosnia and China,but failed to properly execute it; what resulted was a bloated and mismanaged tournament. In recent years, efforts have been made to get more and more matches for Indian team. The revival of the Nehru Cup was a step in the right direction. Credit must be given to Bob Houghton, who quickly identified this problem and emphasized on more matches for the national team.
The recently concluded Asian Cup was a prime example of the impact that the national team can have. India didn’t win any of the games, but fans who don’t usually care for local football took interest in the team for a change. The exposure gained was invaluable. India’s matches held in Pune or Delhi attract bigger crowds than I-League matches, simply because more people identify themselves with the team. A fan from Rajasthan may not relate himself with Mohun Bagan or Dempo, but he will always relate himself with the Indian team.
Cricket has been more popular because it is marketed under the façade of “India”. AIFF again missed a trick by failing to market the concept of the national team – again, not something that should be blamed on cricket.
Cricket has a professional approach
A common complaint often levelled at cricket is that too many people follow it as a religion, and other sports are ignored as a result. What some of us fail to realize it the fact that cricket is the only sport in India that can be taken up as a profession. Cricketers are well paid, they get good endorsements and they have a huge fan following. Football, on the other hand, is still managed and played unprofessionally. Most clubs aren’t run properly, stadia are old and collapsing, and there is an utter lack of transparency. Many young kids choose cricket over football, because they know cricket promises a better future.
Another reason which has prompted more and more people to follow the game is presence of iconic players. Players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, VVS Laxman or Anil Kumble are institutions in their respective states. Saurav’s popularity was such a rage that cricket sidelined football in the mecca of Indian football. Other than Baichung Bhutia and Vijayan, Indian football hasn’t managed to produce any icons in recent times. It is not a coincidence that lot of kids in Sikkim are beginning to play football – they have a role model to look up to now.
Indian sports officials are adept in the delicate art of passing the blame; blaming cricket for the lack of popularity of football is another feather to that brightly coloured cap. Cricket is more popular, because it’s run more professionally. Cricket is more popular, because there are players in cricket who will be counted as being the greatest ever. Cricket is more popular, because you can expect results from the cricket team. Another master stroke from BCCI was to promote cricket diplomacy – turning cricket into a peace maker.
Football is less popular, because AIFF has made one mistake after another in their efforts of propagating the game. When National Football League was started, it became a rage. A cliff hanger inaugural season saw the popularity of football rise to a new level. AIFF had a golden goose in their hands, but instead of grooming it properly they experimented with the format in next two seasons. This confused fans, and they subsequently lost interest. When India played UAE in a world cup qualifier in 2001, not a single poster was put up in Bangalore to notify fans. India played one of the best matches in its history in front of an empty stand.
No cricket official has ever come out in the media and said “don’t follow football”. If this had happened, then it would have been fair to blame cricket. Indian football officials should try to learn from BCCI rather than blame them. On a global scale, football’s popularity is unmatched; in India the game in general is more popular, but local football is not so popular. AIFF needs to be more professional, media friendly and sleek; only then will they be able to attract the Indian EPL/Liga fans towards Indian football.