Cricket may represent the rustle of notes in Indian sport, but the game of football must most definitely stand for passion.
It’s not for nothing that there’s folklore in Kolkata around how women in the old days sold their jewellery to fund their husbands’ favorite players’ wages. Or how a man superstitious about his favorite team losing in his absence came to the football stadium after cremating his son. And while there was always much passion about the game, money was not necessarily flowing in.
However, things may be changing for the better.
According to the All India Football Federation, the sport’s governing body in the country, the average salary of India’s professional footballers for the upcoming season beginning August, saw a jump of between 40 and 62 percent from last year.
“Any average professional player, who played for India last year made anywhere between Rs 40 and 50 lakh per annum. This season their salaries have seen a spike and they are drawing anywhere between Rs 65 and 70 lakh,” said the All India Football Association’s spokesperson, Nilanjan Datta.
The highest paid player in India for the coming season is the Nigerian striker for Mohun Bagan, Odafa Okolie, drawing a whopping Rs 3.25 crore. He is followed by Prayag United’s Nigerian striker Ranty Martins who will make Rs 1.8 crore this season, Tolgay Ozbey of Mohun Bagan who will draw a salary of Rs 1.5 crore and Costa Rican mid-fielder Carlos Hernandez who will play for Prayag United a sum of Rs 1.25 crore. All these players are also eligible for perks like accommodation, reimbursement of children’s tuition fees and (yes!) a Mercedes S-Class.
While the top paid Indian footballers don’t have it as good as their imported counterparts with the perks, they still make a sum that is handsome by Indian football standards. Subrata Pal, India’s goalkeeper nicknamed “Spiderman”— who plays for Prayag United, will make Rs 1.1 crore this year, while Gouramangi Singh, central defender for Prayag United, will earn Rs 1.05 crore as salary.
The association says that even second league footballers make an average of Rs 8 to 10 lakhs a year.
And then of course, there’s Sunil Chhetri, who after excelling for India’s senior side has signed for Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon.
According to the AIFF, there has also been an increase in the number of spectators for the Indian League matches at stadiums. While a Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal match always draws record crowds of anywhere between 80,000 and 1,20,000 fans, a regular Indian League match has seen the number of spectators go up from a little over 3,000 spectators two years ago to an average of 5,000 spectators at each match this past year.
The reason being, the increased interest in and exposure to football nationally. “The game has become mostly popular due to the increased number of matches being aired on TV these days and also personal interest,” says AIFF’s spokesperson.
However, Indian football still has its fair share of problems. While the game is still the predominant choice in Kolkata, youngsters tend to follow and recall European Clubs more than homegrown clubs — like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal or Dempo. The problem says Dutta, lies in India not being a country that has a club culture.
“It is precisely the reason why it’s always a houseful for any match in Delhi that has the national team playing,” he says.
This culture spill also reflects in the number of clubs in the country. India has just 1,500 registered clubs all over the country and only a measly 30 dedicated football fields.
Also, since most clubs in India are driven by a personal interest and are owned by business families, the discrepancy in their budgets is huge. For example a Prayag United has a budget of Rs 20 crore for the upcoming season, while Bhaichung Bhutia’s United Sikkim FC is facing a cash crunch with a budget of just Rs 3 crore. While clubs like United Sikkim FC and Shillong Lajong FC may have immensely talented players, the paucity of funds pose a huge challenge to the team and its players.
So while the overall pay of footballers in the country has improved, the state of the game in India remains status quo. With a few exceptions— it’s all passion and mostly no pay.