Saturday, 25 May 2013

On the Ball episode 1: What the fans think of Indian football

It's been a while since I posted, but here is the first section of my three-part vidcast as part of my MA project at Birmingham City University.

Christened 'On the Ball', my project takes a look at the poor state of Indian football and what is being done to improve the quality of the sport in the game.

Why did I choose Indian football?

A stereotype that exists among the generation of my parents and grandparents is that all Indians are cricket fans. They are therefore shocked when I tell them I am a football fan. What makes this even harder for them to stomach is that I don't enjoy cricket.

This is an attitude you will find throughout India and with good reason. Cricket is India's dominant sport because of the successes that it has achieved on the international level. Interest in the game quite naturally exploded when an Indian team labelled massive underdogs led by Kapil Dev won the World Cup when they beat the West Indies at Lords in 1983.

TV channel Ten Sports broadcasts football from the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and France's Ligue 1. Ten Sports' sister channel Ten Action began broadcasting India's top-flight football league (the I-League) in 2011 and will continue to do so until the 2014-15 season.

Ten Action entered the frame after the league's previous broadcaster Zee Sports terminated their contract over broadcasting rights with the All India Football Federation in 2010, three years into their ten-year deal in an attempt to transition the switch from one network to the other as the Ten network is also owned by Zee.

But for that one season in between Ten Action picking up where Zee Sports left off, there was no national broadcaster for the nation's top flight football league: something that is surely unfathomable in any other country and is something the government should have taken care of. That lack of a national broadcaster is the perfect reflection of the government's attitude towards football.

Joe Morrison is a presenter for the Ten network. "There is enough money in India but financial decisions are being made by people who don't understand the business of football," Morrison said in an article on

"The guys who make commercial decisions and decide sponsorship budgets (the money men) are predominantly older, they were brought up on a diet of cricket through their youth therefore they don't understand that today’s young generation have a huge appetite for football."

Because of this attitude at the top, the condition of the Indian game is poor at best. It's not just the quality of football on the pitch that is sub-par but the entire infrastructure surrounding the sport. While cricket stadia in the nation have bleachers and/or bucket seats, football has to make do with grounds that have cemented stands for the audience. 

I went to Bangalore football stadium to watch an Indian game and the seating arrangements were comprised primarily of the above stands. Seating in the form of plastic chairs was only present in the VIP section of the stadium.

It is often said that footballers play for their fans, and the views of the average Indian footballer could not be more in sync with their supporters. After the game at the stadium, I went down to the changing rooms (which were poorly lit and reeked of urine) to see if I could talk to a couple of the players.

I was fortunate to interview Ericson Lyngdoh, whose side Rangdajied FC had won promotion to the I-league from India's second division during that game. 

"They should start training from [a] young [age], when they are six or seven years old and teach them the basics then," he says, when asked what needs to be done to improve the quality of the players in the game. What Ericson says is true. He never had formal professional training on his own, having honed his skills when he attended school in Bangalore. He says he was taught the game by his brother Eugeneson, who plays as a midfielder for I-league side Shillong Lajong FC.

Eugeneson Lyngdoh was also at the game, which had a sparse crowd of little more than a hundred people in a stadium which could comfortably accommodate twenty thousand. "I think, in India, only in Kolkata do you have a crowd. But in Shillong, when Shillong Lajong play, there are a lot of people who turn up to support the team."

The reason there are crowds at stadia in Kolkata and Shillong in the country's east is because that region is a footballing hub. It is where the British first set up base when they came to India in the 17th century and football in India found roots there. Other areas where the sport is extremely popular are the state of Kerala in the south, where several European clergymen founded missions, and the former Portuguese colony of Goa in the nation's west.

The nation's top flight football clubs are located in it's hotbeds which as can be seen from the map above are very far from each other
But these areas are far and few in between and Eugeneson acknowledges that more must be done by the clubs and the media in order to get fans to watch local games. "I think it's how you get interaction with the fans," he says. "Fans also try to support the team. Get them motivated to come and support the team because I think you play well when you have support."

"I think the team plays well when the supporters are there," says Eugeneson, referring to the game that had just taken place where the small section of Rangdajied fans that had come to the stadium had been cheering their team on for the entire duration of the game. "If the supporters are there, like today, [it was] all thanks to the supporters that the team got a moral boost. We have to do a lot of stuff regarding this."

Stuff that involves reaching out to football fans in India. A Nielsen study in 2010 showed that 47% of the nation's then 1.2 billion people considered themselves to be football fans. But while that is the big picture, zooming in on a study conducted by India's Television and Media Research Institute shows that football draws 83 million TV viewers per annum. But that figure is primarily because of the airing of foreign football in India. American broadcaster ESPN shows over 1500 hours of Premier League football, while Ligue 1, the German Bundesliga, Major League Soccer and the Spanish Primera Liga are all broadcast live in India.

This shows the disparity between the number of people who have a fondness for the game and those who have access to it. In addition, because of the far superior quality of the European game and it's star billing, football fans in India prefer watching foreign football to the I-league. Because football is not a major sport in the subcontinent, the domestic receives little coverage in the media, as a consequence of which people don't even know when games are telecast in India.

In contrast, fans of European clubs are so up to date with their fixture schedules that they organise screenings for fans of a particular club to band together and watch their favourite teams in action. Bangalore Gunners is a supporters group that was founded in the year 2007 in an attempt to host screening for fans of Arsenal Football Club.

In the six years of their existence, they have grown from being a group containing a handful of people to one that is on the verge of receiving official recognition from Arsenal FC. Earlier this year, the group also organised a 'Be a Gunner, Be a Runner' charity run in Bangalore, an activity that is held in London by Arsenal every year. The group did so with the blessing of Arsenal and procured the necessary promotional material for the event from Arsenal themselves, a move that earned them notice from the Emirates Stadium outfit.

Last month, I went to a screening at a restaurant in Bangalore. It was an iconic day for the group: they were collecting signatures for the paperwork they were sending to Arsenal in order to receive official recognition. On that day, the Gunners were playing Manchester United and I was able to get a good cross section of fans from both clubs (and a few supporters of other clubs) to air their woes on what ails Indian football.

Their responses were manifold, ranging from a lack of promotion of the local game and the absence of grass roots football to the domineering nature of cricket as a sport and the lack of investment in football.

That last point was one elaborated on by some of the members of Bangalore Gunners. I spoke to Akash Deep and Vivek Vijayakumar, both long-standing members of the group.

"I blame the government for not supporting the game," says Akash when quizzed on the current state of Indian football. "The common man here knows A to Z about cricket but doesn't know what the off-side rule is. Ninety percent of the population doesn't know much about the game and that pretty much explains the standard of the game here. I do not blame cricket either. Cricket has done it's part to earn the respect it's gotten."

"Advertise the telecasts. We don't even know when there is live telecast [of Indian football games]," adds Vivek. "If there is a telecast and I know about it I will probably watch."

The UEFA Champions League, arguably one of the most watched tournaments in the world, airs well past midnight in India because of the time difference between here and Europe. Abhishek Iyer regularly stays up to watch these games, because:

"When you see the supporters in Europe, they way they follow football, it just makes you want to stay awake and watch the matches. It is just so intense. The level of football, the quality of football, it's just so entertaining. There are three channels which broadcast matches here and you want to watch all three at the same time but you can't do that so I keep switching channels."

A Chelsea fan, Abhishek went to watch Blackburn Rovers take on Indian side Pune FC when they came down to India two years ago. "To see them (the players) on the TV and then watch them in real life was just awesome," he says, when asked about his experience of the game. "It was absolutely brilliant. It was a different feeling altogether. Getting to go watch a Premier League team in action was just mind-blowing."

Like most football fans in India, Abhishek is concerned about the state of affairs in Indian football. He summed it up in one succinct sentence which was in heavy contrast to the praise he heaped upon European football. One that aptly reflects the Indian game:

"India with a population of 1.3 billion can't put out a team of eleven."