Football, Books, And The Indian Youth

Tanuj Lakhina

June 14, 2018

In India, cricket is the biggest sport. In terms of eyeballs, in terms of advertising revenue, in terms of star power, in terms of TV attention and in terms of fan following, cricket stands far above the rest. It can be ascertained by the fact that a sports channel forked out $2.25 billion over the course of five years for media rights to the Indian Premier League – a cash-rich extravaganza played over the course of two months. The dividends from that investment seem to be instant: during the final, a streaming service provider fetched a world record 10.3 million concurrent viewers and a 41% increase in impressions year-on-year.

But where are the young fans? India has the largest young population in the world (under 25 years old) and they contribute significantly to every fragment of the society – including the sport to follow. The number of young fans in attendance at cricket matches has seen a drop amid corruption scandals, an imbalance in the game, controversies over rules and off-the-field stories taking importance over action on the field. The benefits of this drop have been picked up by football.

In the 90s, it was a sport that was followed sporadically – every four years only, during the World Cup, with few games shown on TV. At best, it had everyone hooked for a month with Brazil and Argentina dividing opinions on who will take home the trophy. Fast forward to the next century and wider availability of the sport, and we see TV channels tussle with each other for space late in the night when European leagues are broadcast live. Even if it is the wee hours of the night, fans across the country tune in to watch their favourite clubs – situated thousands of kilometres away – play for three points.

This rise of football is helped by the marketability of the sport and by the availability of literature on the sport itself. Fans understand clubs, try to get more knowledgeable by reading biographies of players and managers, and even delve into the intricacies of football, courtesy of books like Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson. Books like The Illustrated History Of Football World Cup also prove extremely resourceful during the extravaganza.

Much closer home, one of India’s most renowned sports journalists and authors, Novy Kapadia captures many interesting anecdotes and facts about the Jules Rime Trophy in The Football Fanatic’s Essential Guide: 2018 World Cup Special. In the book, Kapadia sheds light on the infamous moment in Indian football history when the team had the opportunity to play alongside Paraguay, Italy, and Sweden in the group stages of the 1950 World Cup but due to many unclear factors, did not make the sojourn to Brazil. While the popular myth remains that India wished to play barefoot, which was against FIFA rules, no one has offered any clear explanation for it. Some of the factors, Kapadia notes, could be, “AIFF (Indian football association) procrastinated and let this opportunity slip by”, or because they did not favour the World Cup over events such as the Olympics or Asian Games.

The decision to not participate in the 1950 World Cup becomes even more startling given Brazil was willing to bear most of India’s expenses. The South Americans were “keen to have a team from the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru,” notes Kapadia. The ramifications of not turning up for Pool III fixtures were dire. FIFA, the world footballing body, angry at the late pullout, refused to accept India’s entry to the 1954 World Cup and the impasse continued till the 80s. In hindsight, had India made that journey, maybe the game would have made early inroads into a newly independent country. As the late Sailen Manna, likely captain for the 1950 side, stated: “Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey.”

(The team that won the 1962 Asian Games gold medal via Scroll.in)

For the youth of today, events of 1950 matter little even as they hope to hear the Indian national anthem play at a World Cup venue in the future. Sooraj Kamath, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student at BITS Pilani, will be supporting Argentina during the upcoming month-long event. He feels football in India has grown but more can possibly be achieved with better results – such as that at the Asian Cup in 2019. “It is true that we’ve seen a lot of growth in the sport over the past few years due to the influence of European football and I am an example of that. However, if India makes it far in the 2019 Asia Cup or qualifies for a World Cup soon, we can expect a sudden and massive growth of football in the country. But this again requires a lot of support from fans which puts the situation in a loop,” he said.

He acknowledges the role that books have played in his understanding of the sport. “Literature plays a huge role in understanding the sport and its history. My favourite book has to be Johan Cruyff’s autobiography, My Turn which provides a really good insight on the life and philosophy of one of the best footballers, managers, and philosophers of all time.”

Nishith Shetty, 23, born in Mumbai and currently studying in Boston, pins his attraction towards football on the overall intensity that the sport offers. “It’s just the intensity of the game that’s packed in such a short period that it makes you forget how time passes by! Also the fact that it is the most beautiful sport and has scripted stories that inspire generation after generation. The only sport that can actually be called a global sport, a sport that unites people across borders and culture,” he exclaims. Shetty, who will be supporting France during the 2018 World Cup, believes that many traditional cricket fans have started to follow Indian football as well.

Saurabh Sharma, an IT professional in the capital, has a clear favourite when it comes to sports. He’s been following football since the 2006 World Cup but didn’t get the most joyful of starts as his team of choice – France – lost in the final to Italy. He states numerous factors have played a role in him following the sport extensively. “The movement, intensity, skills and how, like every sport, the novelty factor here is more evident than in some other sports,” says the 23-year-old.

(Sunil Chhetri via Scroll.in)

The growth of European football leagues and their marketing strategy has also been introduced by those within the Indian football offices. I-League and, the more recent, Indian Super League (ISL) are two of India’s club football leagues and more and more fans are being drawn towards them – as the attendance has shown. Kapadia, in another of his books Barefoot to Boots, effectively captures the growth of Indian football from 1962 when India defied all odds to go to the Asian Games in Jakarta, win the gold medal and justify their tag of ‘Brazil of Asia’. The book works as a must-have for Indian football fans by illustrating the rise and fall of football across the country while also giving due space and credit to legends of the game over the decades.

India has gone from the ‘Brazil of Asia’ to ‘Sleeping Giants’ over a period of 50-odd years highlighting the decline of Indian football. But, with young fans on board, it can be revived easily. And steps have been taken on those lines. Nothing gets the fans – young or old – more enthused than wins and trophies, like winning the Intercontinental Cup and qualifying for the Asian Cup. Led by Sunil Chhetri, a youth icon, football will only draw more fans.


Tanuj Lakhina likes to read, watch and play sports and wishes there were more hours in a day to learn. He also likes technology, languages and watching food videos he's not going to make anyway. You can reach him on Twitter.

You can read his articles, here.