Sunday, 2 June 2013

On the Ball Episode 2: why the problems that plague Indian football exist

In my previous episode, I blogged about the problems that exist in Indian football. It came down to three salient factors:
  1. The lack of awareness and investment in the Indian sport
  2. The superior quality of European football
  3. The presence of cricket as the nation's dominant sport
In this second episode of On the Ball, I interviewed sports journalists and financial analysts who told me why these problems existed and looked at how they can be solved. In addition to only interviewing journalists associated with football, I also spoke to media personnel who were involved with cricket to get an alternate perspective into why Indian football is struggling.

1983 and India's triumph at Lord's

The primary reason India's dominant sport is cricket is because of what transpired at Lord's on the 25th of June in 1983, a day that will be considered one of the greatest in India's sporting heritage.

Classed as underdogs throughout the tournament, Kapil Dev's India beat the West Indian cricket team in the final, who were then considered cricket's dominant force, bowling out Clive Lloyd's team from the Caribbean for 140 runs, winning their first ever tournament by 43 runs, ensuring they had joined the clique that could lay claim to winning the World Cup.

"That was the time when cricket started displacing hockey as the number one sport in India," says Kanishkaa Balachandran, senior sub-editor as ESPN Cricinfo. "It's not to say that cricket wasn't popular before that but that was the turning point and that win had really sparked off the belief that India could actually win an international tournament in a sport other than hockey."

That wave gained momentum with the arrival of satellite television in the early nineties, when cricket matches from all over the world could be viewed in the comfort of one's living room. That decade also saw India host the 1996 edition of the tournament: a transition that saw cricket change from a highly popular sport to a highly profitable one.

Jaideep Chakrabarty is a social media analyst who works for multi-sport website "For a sport to survive, you have to provide stars, one, and results, two. Since 1983, India has produced stars at a regular basis. Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, they have kept on coming, and they have multiplied their successes as well," he says.

"The administrators need to identify a few moments. India won the World Cup in 1983 but till 1996, cricket wasn't a profitable sport. Parents didn't allow their kids to go and become cricketers but the scenario changed in 1996 actually when the World Cup came to India and someone like Jagmohan Dalmiya (the head of Indian cricket's governing body), who absolutely cashed into that opportunity and he took cricket to grounds in the interiors and made a huge, huge impact."

"That World Cup made the biggest impact in Indian cricket," he adds. "Cricket started making money because the big sponsors started coming in."

Are the administrators to shoulder the blame for the state of Indian football?

In a nation where cricket is considered religion, one of the nation's sporting gods is Sachin Tendulkar, who recently completed his one hundredth international hundred. Gautam Mahajan, Jaideep's colleague at Sportskeeda, says football needs someone like him.

"We need a Sachin for football. Sachin became so successful in cricket because every single kid could associate with him. They could empathise with Sachin when they saw Sachin play. We've never had someone like that [for Indian football]," says the editor.

"Baichung Bhutia was at that level but [the administrators] didn't make use of him. He went and played in Europe and all of that but it never helped because there has been no marketing of the I-League," adds Mahajan. "The I-League is supposed to be our showpiece, our most important league, this is where all our football takes place. All our footballers play in the I-League."

"Everyone is playing in the I-League so why doesn't ESPN Star Sports broadcast it? Why is there not better coverage of it? Why can't we have HD cameras for a change?" he asks.

If there was one single incident on the international scale to show how lackadaisical the attitude towards the game is by those who govern it, it was when Lionel Messi represent Argentina in an international friendly against Venezuela at the Salt Lake Stadium - India's largest football stadium - in Kolkata in September 2011.

"Argentina plays against Venezuela and it's on astroturf, and it was emitting so much of heat that they actually had to take a time-out in the 77th minute," says a slightly incredulous-looking Jaideep. "Now those kind of facilities has to change. You can't expect an international footballer of Lionel Messi's standard [who] just has to say 'stop the game because I am getting tired here because of the heat'. You can't have that."

The installation of state of the art facilities in the stadium had been lacking until Messi was scheduled to play there. Since then however, those facilities have fallen into disrepair.

Amoy Ghoshal formerly worked as a correspondent for Indian football for both the Hindustan Times and "You need to have proper dressing rooms, proper media centres, proper referees' rooms, which no stadium in India has at the moment," he says. "When Lionel Messi came to India, everything was renovated at the Salt Lake Stadium but then again everything went back to where it was: dirty stadiums, the fire extinguishers have already crossed their expiry date."

"In the twelve months time since Messi's appearance in Kolkata, it went back to where it was ten years ago," laments Amoy.

Change on the horizon?

Although this is the current state of Indian football, the sport does have a very large following. Being the world's most populous nation has attracted the attention of FIFA, who see vast potential in the country. In an attempt to raise awareness of the sport in India, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has bid for the 2017 edition of the U-17 FIFA World Cup.

Amoy hopes that the tournament will bring about the change needed where it matters most: at grass-roots.

"When I say grass-root level, I don't just mean clubs having four [to] five age groups of [teams, but] most schools should have a playground at the minimum. I can tell you that schools in Kolkata for example, the school that has the most students, they don't have a playground. You have to start playing at a young age and you have to be encouraged to take that sport seriously." he says, adding that schools in the nation don't know how important teams sports are for building a child's character.

Another aspect of the game he says will improve is the infrastructure, which as mentioned above is sub-par at best.

"If we do get to host the tournament, it will be a massive lift for the infrastructure of the game. Whenever a foreign player or a foreign coach comes in, the first thing they complain about is infrastructure, because without proper stadiums you will not get to see better teams coming and improvement in the youth structure."

But while Amoy was looking at the positives the tournament could potentially bring, Vineeth Krishnan has already found a snafu in the country's preparation for that tournament. The former Times of India journalist recently travelled to Kalyani on the outskirts of Kolkata to observe the set-up of the under-14 academies that were being set up in an attempt to prepare India's current generation of youth footballers for the tournament.

"These were state institutions hand-picking a select group of players, saying these are our best under-14 talent and from there [current AIFF Academy director] Scott O'Donnell and other coaches picked them up and brought them to Kalyani and you have a large number of them being tested for being overage, as overaged as 17 years old," he says.

The only states that did provide players of the right age group were Goa and Kerala.

"So where are we going to go forward?" he asks. "The whole idea of focusing on the 2017 World Cup for the U-17's was that India, if we get in as hosts, and we train these kids for three years, could reach a level where they could, not win the tournament, nobody was expecting them to win the tournament, but at least put up a good effort, display some good attacking football, for example."  

Vineeth is of the opinion that that Indian showing will give a boost to the game in India, something that has not happened so far. In an effort to improve the state of football from the bottom upwards, Scott O'Donnell, formerly of the Asian Football Confederation's grass roots development arm and Rob Baan, who was previously employed at Feyenoord and ADO Den Haag in his native Netherlands, were appointed as the  Academy head and technical director of the AIFF respectively.

The duo have the right ideas, according to Vineeth, and are the people to take India forward, having already modernised the training methods imparted to students at academies in the country.

"You've got a lot of Dutch coaches coming in. The Dutch are amazing at dealing with kids," he says. "You try to instil that sort of technique into the Indian game which to me is good. There's a lot of Indian coaches calling for Indian coaches to come in and take over and do away with the foreign coaches, but to them all I have to ask is, you had sixty years to do your training, where have you taken the country?"

Football: where's the moolah?

The Indian Premier League is a cricket tournament instituted in 2008 as a method of providing entertainment to cricket fans via a Twenty20 format of the game. The nine teams that contest the league are all owned by private enterprises, who have capitalised on the nation's near-fanatical fan following, and while some of them are waiting to turn a profit, a majority of teams are raking in the dough.

"The IPL came about because of Lalit Modi," says Kanishkaa. "Lalit Modi was a visionary. He pictured this tournament many years before the IPL actually came into existence so that was like his business plan and he employed it for cricket. Now if football had somebody like him to sort of spruce it up and if there was a tournament, an IPL-like tournament that comes up for football, that would be great."

But while there is hope that the infrastructure will improve and the game will develop with the potential arrival of the 2017 U-17 World Cup, will it - like in the case of cricket - bring about the necessary funds required for the sport to develop further in India?

The reason this is of concern is because of the recent folding of two I-league sides after operating costs which ranged from Rs. 70 to 100 million became very high for Mahindra United and JCT FC to manage, which meant they shut down after the 2009-10 and 2010-11 season respectively.

In 2010, IMG Reliance, the Indian arm of global sports media company IMG, signed a fifteen-year deal with the AIFF believed to be worth Rs. 7 billion. The money from that deal was to be split amongst all fourteen clubs in the league. Do the math and that amounts to about 500 million rupees over ten years, which amounts to fifty million rupees a year.

But that is only the first of many steps in the right direction What did later complicate matters was that IMG Reliance, who under the terms of the agreement would market and publicise the I-league, were struggling to attract sponsors less than two years into the partnership, which means that one of the problems in the Indian game is a lack of money from investors.

"Indian football could actually use money coming in from different sources," says Apratim Mukherjee of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Currently, the league is looking to revamp it's structure so hopefully the new model that they come up with would ensure that they come up with sustainable revenue so that more investment pours in."

"The three major sources of revenue for any football club are gate revenues, media rights and sponsorships. Media rights is completely controlled by the AIFF while sponsorships and gate revenues are in the hands of the football clubs," he continues. "On top of that you've got a sort of a limit to the number of sponsors a football club can have, which is apparently six, so not much potential there and gate revenues according to figures that we have, it's pretty low. It's pretty worrying actually, considering that people are hardly watching Indian football at all in India, people hardly turn up in numbers to watch matches live."

This new model Apratim speaks of is one where a format similar to the one Major League Soccer in the United States is used. Because of the size of the States, the league is split into two portions, the Eastern and Western Conferences, but he says that Indian clubs are few and far between:

"[In the MLS], you've got clubs from all over and equally represented, which is not the case in India. In India, definitely the interest and the passion that you have in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai [and] Bangalore needs to be tapped. I don't think that these cities are even represented well enough in the league."

"I think there's a lot of money to be made, the time is right but I think the AIFF and the league that is in place, they have to get something going," he says in closure. 

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