Why is India so bad at football?

Soccer in India: Out of the shadows


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Love in two words. "Bayern Munich!", The little boy behind us in block A 33 in the Delhi football stadium crows enthusiastically, and a few more times in the next few minutes: "Bayern Munich!" But nothing of Bayern Munich can be seen anywhere in the stadium. The Delhi Dynamos and Club Pune City from the south of the country meet on the field below in the floodlights. It is one of the first encounters in the Indian Super League (ISL), the country's new football league.

Nevertheless, Bavaria, Manchester and Madrid are there on this late autumn evening: as an inspiration, as a comparison, and also as a burden. Attending a game, sitting in the stadium means entering a world for the Indian audience that is dominated by these major teams and their magical names. The boy just screamed out what's in everyone's mind. European football and its stars and clubs are popular in India; the newspapers write about it, you can watch the games of the English Premier League or the Bundesliga on TV. Indian football is in 159th place in the Fifa country ranking. In 1970 India won the last Olympic medal (bronze), and in 1982 it reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Games. That's it with recent international successes. The sport in which the country has world-class status, which produces national heroes and which drives millions of boys and grown men on Sunday afternoons to all semi-open spaces, on the outskirts of villages and in the parks of the cities, is cricket.

The Indian Super League is the attempt to finally make football competitive and successful in this difficult terrain - athletically and economically. Eight newly established teams will fight for the championship until the end of December. It is a company with a lot of money and glamor, famous actors (and cricket stars!) As owners of the teams created especially for this tournament, with large companies as partners and sponsors, with European stars at an advanced age such as Alessandro Del Piero ( Italy, world champion 2006) or Robert Pirés (France, world champion 1998) as crowd pullers. A television station is among the co-organizers, so the league's media presence is already guaranteed. But how will it hold its own next to the globalized perfection football that keeps the imagination occupied? Besides "Bayern Munich"?

Indian Super League

Indian Super League (ISL)

The ISL consists of eight teams, was founded in 2013 and started playing for the first time this year. Along with the I-League, it is the highest league in the country and is based on the rules of the US Major League Soccer; there is no promotion and relegation system. Eight teams take part. The first season started in October and ends on December 20th. Each team must sign one player with international experience and seven foreign players. Of the 14 Indian athletes in the roster, four must be from their team's hometown.

The audience is relaxed, well-bred and middle-class: more American football than old European football with its remnants of roughness and tribal passion. Lots of young couples and families with children. With boys in particular, sometimes costumed in brand new cleats, socks, and jerseys, who have never seen an amateur soccer field and probably never will; but often the sisters also came along, in civilian clothes, in children's birthday clothes. Outside the arena, selfies and group pictures are taken with the stadium as a background. Inside there is pizza and popcorn. On Tuesday evening, it is a Sunday afternoon mood, like in one of the multiplex cinemas in the shopping malls, where affluent metropolitan India prefers to spend its free time. The game down on the pitch is a bit muddled and ends goalless. Alessandro Del Piero, who comes on after half an hour, is clearly not having a good day. But the La Ola waves are rolling anyway - it just has to feel good to be able to do it now, like the hundreds of thousands of people who have seen it on screen.

Football in India is by no means an import without history, not a purely synthetic product. "Soccer is older in India than in Germany," says Novy Kapadia with pride. In 1888, Kapadia reports, the first football tournament took place in what was then British-ruled India, organized for the soldiers of the colonial power; Native Indian teams have also participated since around 1900. The English lecturer at the University of Delhi is a well-known sports enthusiast and commentator, the author of the book The Football Fanatic’s Essential Guide on the World Cup, a one-man research institute on the history of football in India. The fascination goes back to his childhood: he grew up in Delhi near the train station in the old town, in a neighborhood where mainly Muslims and immigrants from East Indian Bengal lived: the two groups that were always the most football-friendly. When teams from other cities arrived at the train station for games in Delhi, there was a state of emergency among the boys in the neighborhood.



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In 1940, he continues, now really with shining eyes, an Indian team won for the first time, the Mohammedan Sporting club from Kolkata, 2-1 against the selection of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. It was the first Indian team that no longer played barefoot but in shoes, brought together the best players from all over the country and carried out systematic fitness training. Defeating the English colonial rulers and catching up with the West in a western discipline was and is a big deal in India, not just in sport.

Until the 1960s, Novy Kapadia said, football was no less popular than cricket in India. But in the fully professional age, at least since the eighties, football has lost touch with the international level. The Indian players were semi-exempted company employees, police or military personnel, with a little bit of employer support - not really professional athletes. On television, the nation could now see how fast, powerful and dangerous for goals was played elsewhere: a demoralizing sight when compared to the level of performance at home. India lost interest in its own football. Leagues have been launched twice since 1997 to revive the rundown sport. The Indian Super League is the third attempt. In 2017, when the country hosts the FIFA World Cup for under-seventeen-year-olds, it is said to have put India back on the map of global football.