AFC Asian Cup 2019: Lack of excitement towards India's participation at event down to cultural, operational challenges

India’s participation in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup should be the biggest highlight of the football calendar here, but there is little excitement towards it among the masses.

Akarsh Sharma January 06, 2019 12:56:40 IST
AFC Asian Cup 2019: Lack of excitement towards India's participation at event down to cultural, operational challenges

India’s participation in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup should be the biggest highlight of the football calendar here, but there is little excitement towards it among the masses.

AFC Asian Cup 2019 Lack of excitement towards Indias participation at event down to cultural operational challenges

File photo of Indian Football Team. AIFF

Which isn’t surprising: it has been the norm with the national team for decades. This is only accentuated further in the information age where, despite several avenues to connect with fans, the needle has not moved much – though change, however gradual, is certainly afoot.

Indian national team's poor following has been due to several reasons. Some are just cultural – like the manner in which Indians consume sport – and some are operational – like shoddy governance of football that has kept the sport stagnant and produced teams of poor quality.

We remain a nation of glory-hunters. We follow our athletes and teams after they have achieved something on the world stage. “World” being the operative word here and football is decades away from reaching that stage; the sport is yet to have a proper domestic structure in place to produce a team worthy of being proud of.

Cricket and hockey have spoilt the nation; two sports in which India has found success at the world stage and that are followed almost exclusively at the national-team level – aside from the 50-day Indian Premier League (IPL). These are sports which do not field more than 10-15 decently competitive countries from around the world, which makes success easier to find.

On the other hand, Asia, only the fourth-best continent in football, alone has 10 top dogs. Not winning the Asian Cup is considered a big failure in cricket and hockey, while just qualifying for it is an achievement in football.

How do you put this point across to the casual Indian viewer? Just one aspect of the challenge that football faces against the prevailing culture of sport in India.

At least the sport has made inroads via the ‘sportainment’ avenue – where sport mixes with entertainment to follow an IPL blueprint. The Indian Super League (ISL) is shown almost daily on TV at primetime hours – like a soap – and does well to popularise football and retain the attention of fans. If the ISL was played on weekends like football traditionally is across the world, it would struggle to find viewership in India.

With this in mind, imagine a team, not stylish or successful, that plays once in a few months and is also poorly marketed by the guardians of the game? It is out of sight and out of mind, with little to no emotional association developed with fans. Indians tend to need a steady dosage or a sense of theatre.

When the U-17 national team played in the World Cup last year, close to 30,000 fans in Delhi attended the matches in addition to 20,000-plus kids transported in from government schools. When the same team was rebranded as Indian Arrows club and participated in India's top division, there were no takers. Indians understood the term “World Cup” – it was an easy sell – and they cared little that the team had qualified as hosts.

But the Asian Cup? “Pfft, pfft! Please wake me up when we make the World Cup.”

Football administrators’ immature obsession with qualifying for a World Cup hasn’t helped change this culture. Imagine continuously selling hopes of reaching a World Cup in a nation that struggles to qualify for the continental tournament – and has only done so this time because the event has expanded from 16 to 24 teams from this edition onwards.

Over the last eight years, All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel has gone public with hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, then the 2022 World Cup and recently the 2026 World Cup – where Mr. Patel also spoke of how skipper Sunil Chhetri and his team can make the 2026 World Cup, even though Chhetri would be 42 by then. If you want to know how poorly most Indians understand football, you can start right at the top.

However, the above-mentioned cultural challenges do not absolve AIFF and its partners of their apathy towards the senior national team affairs in recent years – which has contributed to the lack of aura around this team.

Scheduling of games has been abysmal and the promotion pitiful. When current head coach Stephen Constantine started his second stint with India, his first task was to play a World Cup qualifier against Nepal in March 2015. At the time, India had played once in the previous 12 months. In 2014, India played two matches. As per FIFA’s records, you have to go way back to 1990 – when India played no games – to find a more barren year.

Crowds averaged 50,000 fans for club games in Kochi but only 3,200 turned out for a national team World Cup qualifier in 2016. Obviously, fingers were pointed towards fans – and not the promoters – since fans are expected to turn up for these games like soldiers on duty. The team’s jerseys too have been impossible to find, though a recent switch in kit sponsor may finally make these available and affordable to fans.

Constantine has often voiced his concerns over a lack of harmony between club football and the national team. In October 2015, less than 24 hours after turning out for India in Oman, striker Robin Singh started for Delhi Dynamos in an ISL match – a shocking disregard for the player’s health. ISL, which claims to exist to benefit the national team, did not honour FIFA’s designated international breaks until its current season – which is its fifth. Even now, the ISL breaks for 10 days as opposed to 13 or 14, leaving no room for the national team to play two matches like most other nations.

However, things have been improving, and the national team is likely to gain prominence over the next few years. More fans are watching domestic football than ever before because of the ISL, which translates to more people being aware of Indian footballers than ever before. Fan groups of various clubs have united to support this team. Club football is the only way to build context around a national team that does not play frequently.

India’s number one sports broadcaster also seems to have some skin in the game – it co-owns ISL, the perceived success of which is heavily linked with the national team’s future success. Yet, up until late December, the tournament’s TV coverage wasn’t confirmed.

The 2019 Asian Cup has perhaps come too soon to feel this change. Fortunately, with the Asian Cup now allowing 24 teams, India should be able to qualify for pretty much every edition. And, as Subhasish Bose told Goal, “the Asian Cup is like the World Cup” for India. This will only be India’s third appearance in 35 years. It must find a firm footing in the continent first before setting higher targets.

Maybe by 2023, national team matches and marquee events like the Asian Cup would be looked forward to more by the masses – and not feel like a footnote in the calendar.

Updated Date:

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