So it would not be unfair to describe India as a colossal under-performer in the world’s most popular sport. (Yes, China, an even bigger emerging market powerhouse, is ranked a paltry 97th, but it at least has qualified for the World Cup once before, in 2002, and has come close to doing it again since then).
It’s not as though soccer is not popular in India, although cricket is easily the country’s favorite sport. Big European football club matches, particularly those from the English Premier League, regularly draw large television audiences in the country, as did the recently ended FIFA World Cup in Brazil (apparently Argentina has a large Indian following).
Now there are some embryonic signs that India could rectify its woeful record on the playing field.
This week the new Indian Super League was launched. The league, backed by the country’s most prominent sporting star, retired cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, along with a Bollywood star and some deep-pocketed Indian conglomerates, will feature eight teams and begin play in October. Already some prominent European stars (albeit aging ones) have signed up to play.
The 39-year-old Italian legend Alessandro del Piero has just signed for the Delhi Dynamos. French star Robert Pires (age 40), Sweden’s Freddie Ljunberg (37) and Spain’s Luis Garcia (36) have all come out of retirement to play for Super League teams.
These players are in the twilight of their careers. But a new league can’t be too picky. And mixing aging foreign stars with younger local talent is the formula the US and Australia’s domestic leagues, both revamped within the last decade, used to great effect. (Del Piero, for example, most recently played in Sydney).
Those countries now consistently qualify for the World Cup. The US even made it through to the knockout stages in three of its last four tournaments. India has a long, long way to go to match that, but at least it appears to be making a start.