The two sports that have dominated the minds of Indians for more than a century are Cricket and Hockey. Unfortunately, the success that cricket was able to sustain in terms of popularity in the Indian sports scenario could not be replicated by hockey. The reasons for this are two fold. One, the achievements or victories that an Indian sports team garners in international tournaments is a strong factor in keeping the sport alive. Cricket in this context has it relatively easy as there are only a handful of nations that play the game (mainly the British colonies). Thus the competition isn’t as severe as other sports. Secondly, the physical stamina and capability required to play cricket is also lesser than other sports. Both these factors have played a major role in the popularity of cricket and the current crisis faced by the national sport.
After the domination of field hockey by India in the Olympic Games (gold medals from 1932 – 1956 and then in 1964 and 1980.), there were a large number of changes in regulations, including the use of synthetic pitches, which made the game more physical and thus immediately put the more skilful Indians at a disadvantage. The high cost of artificial turf also helped in ending the reign of Indian hockey. Hence these changes allowed physically and financially stronger European teams like Australia, Netherlands and Germany to challenge the superiority of the subcontinent. This drastically reduced the number of wins in international tournaments leading to a fall in popularity of hockey in India.
Indians now watch the one sport where they still have a good chance of wining. Armed with a massive market of cricket enthusiasts, India now leads the evolution of the game by its full fledged support for the new twenty-twenty avatar. The fact that BCCI is financially stronger than the biggest football clubs in the world is evidence enough of India’s importance in keeping the sport economically viable.
I, on the other hand, have always been amazed that a sport like football never gained popularity in India. Football is played quite extensively in schools (at least in urban India) and requires almost minimal infrastructure at most levels. After all, cricket balls, bats, pads, gloves, helmets and stumps can all be replaced by a single football. In contrast, both tennis and shooting (sports which have seen recent success) have heavy infrastructural requirements.
There is no doubt that football too is a physically demanding game, but we have innumerable examples of similar developing nations (e.g. Brazil) faring extremely well. Another added advantage of football will be that as the game penetrates the youth, they will have to enhance their physical fitness. Unfortunately current role models such as Virendra Sehwag would find it quite hard to complete the ninety minutes of an international football match.
The football fans in India remain scattered only in certain parts of the country like West Bengal and the north east. Although there is a large following for International league football; it is limited to a fractional urban section of the population. It would be hard not to find immense skill and talent among a billion people and the government must tap such resources and harness the potential that the country is capable of. A good start would be to distribute footballs on a large scale to schools in rural India and appoint knowledgeable and experienced football coaches with an eye for talent. We have a vast reservoir of talent in our country and I am sure there are plenty of Messi’s and Ronaldo’s waiting to be discovered.
Saiyid Lamaan Hamid