Intercontinental Cup: Sunil Chhetri's emotional plea to fans highlights AIFF's lack of effort to promote the game in India

Sunil Chhetri knows a thing or three about scoring goals. The Indian football captain showed over the weekend that he can touch raw nerves with a simple, emotional and chilling video appeal to fans of football in India to become fans of Indian football as well. This was no melodrama but a passionate attempt to drum up more support at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai.

Of course, there have been times when the squad has received massive support. Witness, the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Bengaluru and Margao last year. Or, for that matter, even during the Nehru Gold Cup in 2012 when India beat Cameroon in a penalty shoot-out in the final at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi.

Yet, for years, it has been obvious that there is little connect between India's burgeoning football viewership and the support for Indian football, let alone the Indian football team. At least two generations of football fans have grown up on rich servings from European leagues while looking the other way when it came to supporting the Indian team.

For a federation that has roped in celebrity team owners to promote the ISL, the AIFF made no attempts to get Mumbai's football lovers to head to the Andheri Sports Complex and support the Indian team. Image courtesy: Twitter @IndianFootball

For a federation that has roped in celebrity team owners to promote the ISL, the AIFF made no attempts to get fans to head to the Andheri Sports Complex and support the Indian team. Image courtesy: Twitter @IndianFootball

It was not much of a surprise then that the national squad's massive 5-0 victory over Chinese Taipei in the opening game of the four-team Intercontinental Cup was achieved in the presence of 2000-odd spectators and at least a dozen TV cameras. Touched by having to play before empty terraces in the western megapolis, Sunil Chhetri sat down to reach out on social media.

Perhaps, the coming generations will be fed on a diet of city-based leagues for privately-owner clubs across several sports around the world. Driven by television companies that fight for a share of the viewership, we may have to get used to the idea of watching National teams play fewer matches in sports like football and hockey, basketball and volleyball.

That may still be in the future. The question that begs asking is: Did it need the captain of the Indian team to put out a video on social media to create awareness about the quadrangular tournament? Does the role of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) end in bringing teams to Mumbai so that the National side stays in competitive trim?

Curiously, the AIFF chose the Sports Complex in Andheri as the venue for the tournament rather than any of the six venues – Guwahati, Kolkata, Kochi, Margao, Navi Mumbai and New Delhi – that had been developed with not insignificant investments for the FIFA U17 World Cup 2017, which saw record attendances.

Talking of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2017, the Mission XI Million project, which was launched in its run-up, was envisaged as a turning point at least in terms to drawing youngsters to play the Beautiful Game. It does not appear to have succeeded in the direction AIFF would have wanted. India appears to have some distance to go before it can consider itself a footballing nation.

There has been little effort to publicise the Intercontinental Cup. For a federation that has roped in celebrity team owners to promote the ISL, the AIFF made no attempts to get Mumbai's football lovers to head to the Andheri Sports Complex and support the Indian team. As luck would have it, the event has been caught between IPL and Pro Kabaddi League, two major club-based properties.

Some of the things that you would expect from the mandarins of India football can be easily done. For instance, the price of tickets could have been brought down substantially. Gone are the days when gate money used to be a substantial part of the revenue. Football fans could have been enticed with more attractive ticket prices.

Above all, for a national team to capture the imagination of fans and draw substantial crowds wherever it plays, it has to play more often in competitive events than the All India Football Federation schedules for its national team. For a side to embed itself in the collective consciousness of the people, it must play often – and win.

Consider this: Till the end of last month, India had played one match in 2018. In the 24 months starting January 2016, India played only 15 matches. At a time when the sports fan in India is spoilt for choice with a wide variety of televised sport, you will agree that these numbers are not the sort that can develop a large fan base for the football team.

Of course, there will be issues. The better teams – and we are not talking about the 31 sides that will join host Russia in the FIFA World Cup 2018 – are perhaps not ready to travel to India fearing lack of competition but the AIFF can surely find teams to play annual events like the Nehru Gold Cup that used to be a regular feature in the past.

It is a reflection of where we are as a society that Sunil Chhetri's passionate appeal appeared to gain traction only after the Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli took note of it a day later and lent his support, exhorting Mumbaikars to head to the Andheri Sports Complex. Now, even mainstream media reacted to the video only after Kohli’s response.

Sunil Chhetri's spontaneous and emotional appeal may have been a unique video invite for fans to be a part of not just his 100th international but also the Indian team's journey. It will have succeeded if more seats are occupied when India plays Kenya and New Zealand in the tournament. But the video will have succeeded more if it makes AIFF introspect about several issues.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 16:41 PM

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