Rest assured, India, with each World Cup, we’re getting closer to the game

Indian football fans across economic strata are ready.
Indian football fans across economic strata are ready.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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Like millions around the world, India too is swept up in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It occupies vast chunks of airtime on the country’s many news and current affairs TV channels (the registered count is 57), acreage of advertising space in print media and has a buzzing, humming social media presence.

Ever since the World Cup began to show up on India’s TV screens (my own memory dates to the knock-out rounds of Spain 1982), the event has reminded the otherwise inattentive larger public to ask questions about the state of its national football. Where it stands in the world game, why so and why ever not anything different.

The queries every four years tend to be routine and formulaic. Yet, the World Cup becomes a marker for the strides made by the game in India—football, not as a professional sport though. But football as a “product” of leisure, at the beating heart of urban pop-culture, a phenomenon engineered by television.

The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was the first Copa shown live in its entirety on Indian television, free to air by the national broadcaster. Paid/ cable television was still a distance away and the rules of the game changed in India only a decade later. In 1995, ESPNStar Sports, a wholly-owned subsidiary of News Corp, signed on for exclusive rights to the English Premier League. A year later, the first live coverage of the 1996 European Championships on the channel was interspersed by highlight clips of India’s National Football League games. The contrast was palpable and the sons of fathers who had watched local football turned away rapidly.

In 2002, India’s national broadcaster Doordarshan detached itself from the World Cup football in its entirety and the event came onto or TV sets as the launch pad for Ten Sports, a new sports channel. This year all that non-cable households in India are scheduled to see of the Brazil World Cup are the first match, the semi finals and the finals.

A 2014 study of “football consumption in India” by TAMSports, an sports television arm of TAM Media Research listed football at No. 3 of the most watched sports in India (after cricket and freestyle wrestling) at an audience of 83 million. It rated its “viewership record” at 155m. Between 2005 and 2009, football viewership in India, it said, rose by 60 percent. A formal FIFA television audience report (pdf) listed the audience reach in India for the 2010 World Cup at 44.9million, with a peak match audience at 5.6m. Regardless of the fortunes of the national team, these are considerable numbers.

It is these Indian numbers that have uprooted what are, in general, considered essential moorings in the football world. The Indian audience’s attention towards football has been directed not at national club competition never mind the national team, but European club football. The generation introduced to high-quality football on Indian television from is now in its 20s. The pull and weight of its purchasing power is acutely sensed and relentlessly pursued. In market research terminology, the demographic now being catered to is the SEC AB, the upper most segment of the consuming classes. In the case of live football in India TAM declared that “skew” is clear: “male, 15+, SEC AB.”

This is flat world phenomenon, that has already played itself out at large in more than one country. Except that this is India, where unlike in most other countries seduced by European leagues, football is not the sport of its masses. Thanks to television, the ‘working man’s ballet’ is turned into an ubercool viewing pastime for India’s young, upwardly-mobile millions. Cricket, India’s No.1 sport, is no longer the central object of many urban affections. Football, the marketing men are driven to suggest repeatedly, particularly around World Cups, is the new cricket.

The cricket-football dynamic operating between class and culture in England stands upturned in India. Here, in terms of its viewing audience, cricket has become the “yob” sport and football the “posh.” An irony though runs through this: India’s professional footballing talent still originates from decades-old strongholds – the north-eastern states and West Bengal in the east, Goa and Kerala in the west and south. Like in the Latin America, Africa and the West, boys from ordinary households continue to be lured by the magnetic beauty and simplicity of football.

At the other end of the scale, are popular leagues that have sprouted up in Delhi driven originally by diplomatic/ expat community and attracting the children of affluent Indians from the city’s elite schools. These leagues operate outside the city’s local club competitions and are unlikely to produce India’s future soccer pros.

India has often been called the “sleeping giant” of world football. It can only be hoped that the eventual intention is to awake the sleeping giant around the professional game. Rather than increasing the numbers of its T-shirt-buying fan clubs with their eyes on Europe. A newly-launched Indian Super League seeks to focus Indian fan interest in the Indian game by building a set of new ‘franchise’ clubs. The seventeenth edition of the FIFA under-17 World Cup is to be held in six Indian cities in 2017 promises an improvement in facilities and a surge of local involvement in the sport. By the time of the next FIFA World Cup in 2018, we will know if anything has come of these ambitions.