India has always been a cricket maniac country, but long before the hysteria of cricket caused havoc in the Indian subcontinent, the beautiful game of Football had its roots imprinted in Indian folklore. It all started in September 1877, when a 10-year-old boy watching the white men play kicked the stray ball and returned it to the British soldiers! Who knew that this innocent 10 year old would change the sporting, cultural and political history of football in India. He is none other than Nagendra Prasad Sarbhadikari- father of Indian football.
The game was however introduced by British soldiers but it was once the national sport of India and the impetus for this was to unify the Indian Army. However, clubs were soon set up around the country. Several football clubs like Calcutta FC, Sovabazar, Mohun Bagan and Aryan Club were established in Calcutta around the 1890s. Calcutta, then capital of British India, soon became the hub of Indian football. Tournaments like Gladstone Cup, Trades Cup and Cooch Behar Cup was also started around this time and India was home to some of the oldest clubs in the world and the third oldest competition, the Durand Cup.
On 29th June 1911 when British used religion to divide the country and violence to repress the nationalist’s movement, football united the nation when 80,000 people from far corners gathered to witness Mohun Bagan dismantling all notions of British supremacy. The game itself was a circumstantial examination of the freedom struggle, although this unprecedented success couldn’t be carried forward as British used their powers to bias referees against Indian teams that progressed to the knockout stages of notable tournaments.
Amidst all this, India found its first-ever national captain and a true leader, Goshto Pal who was popularly called the “Chinese Wall” for his upfront protests against the unjust refereeing. The 1930s saw the rise of Indian football as Indian clubs dominated the British teams by winning five consecutive Calcutta League titles. The man at the centre of the thrill was Mohammed Salim. His talent led to global recognition as he was signed by Celtic FC in 1936 becoming the first Indian to play in Europe. A cult hero in Scotland to the day, it is said that Salim was so good on the ball that the club manager allowed him to play bare feet. Mesmerized by his skills, the Scottish Daily Express of 29th August 1936 wrote, “Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night. He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it and hops on one foot around the defender.”
The Golden Era:
A scintillating display of football in the 30s and the subsequent rise in football across India earned them a call for the 1948 London Olympics. Barefooted Indian players were an inch closer to defeating France. After the glorious defeat of 2-1, the then Indian captain Sailen Manna and his team were invited to the Buckingham Palace. The queen met the Indian team and discussed football. Amazed by the Indian performance and the standing ovation from the away crowd FIFA granted India an automatic qualification for the 1950 Brazil World Cup. But the governing body, AIFF decided against going to the World Cup, being unable to understand the importance of the event at that time. They perceived the Olympics to be a bigger sporting event than the World Cup. The Indian team was disallowed to take part in the greatest football carnival and the dream has taken more than 70 years to become a reality.
The period from 1951 to 1962 is considered the golden era in Indian football. India became the best Asian team under the instructions of Syed Abdul Rahim. The team was led by Sailen Manna, one of the greatest players the country and the continent has ever witnessed. Then in 1956, India proved yet again that they were the undisputed kings of Asian football by registering a semi-final appearance in the Melbourne Olympic Games. They became the first team in Asia to do so. India further established itself as the most dominating force to reckon with in the Asian community. They won another Gold medal in the 1962 Asian Games held in Jakarta. Hence, the period from 1950 to 1962 is often referred to as the “Golden Era of Indian Football.”
Rebirth & Future Of Indian Football
Syed Abdul Rahim’s death resulted in instability and the team never settled down post the golden era. India never qualified for the Olympics after 1960.
India’s last important performance in an international tournament was in 1970 Asian Games when it won the bronze medal by defeating Japan 1–0. As during this time cricket gained extreme popularity and the perplexed federation of football fell further into the debris of obscurity.
The overview changed with the inauguration of Indian Super League (ISL) in the year 2013. Since then, the league based football tourney seems to be inching cricket both in terms of viewership and sponsorship. The hyperbolic marketing has since vindicated optimism about football’s capacity for growth in India.
ISL has taken a significant step in the development of Indian football and a lot of money is being infused to create a demand. The premier football league completed its fifth season and the owners IMG Reliance and Star India have seen better sponsorship revenues with every season. They are inching towards developing a sustainable fan base on the back of local heroes, attract world-class players to indulge with different franchises and launch a robust grassroot level training programme.
ISL has grown in size, duration and viewership. It is a rare example where a sports commercial success is driving its sporting glory. ISL showed great traction of viewership front on both broadcasts as well as the digital platform (Hotstar). Slowly but steadily, the television viewership of ISL began skyrocketing, digital streaming platform Hotstar said, it has recorded a 5X times increase in total time spent by the viewers and the season four recorded a cumulative reach of 270 million viewers which meant that ISL is the 3rd most viewed sporting league. Witnessing the stable growth, almost 90% of the brands renewed their deal with the broadcasters. Star India, the official broadcasters of ISL almost earned Rs 200 Crore in advertising from its fifth season.
This topsy-turvy journey of Indian football currently ranks us 101 in the FIFA world rankings. India hosted the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup and the tournament was touted as the most successful U-17 World Cup with the attendance being a record 13,47,133. India is also going to host the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and India has also bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. All together football in India is expected to grow and become the next big industry in the global world.