The 23-year explosion of the Premier League to all four corners of the world has brought out a passionate interest in football from many nations we in the myopic west of Europe often consider either uninterested in the world game, or more concerned with weird, backward sports like kabbaddi, or cricket. India is one of those countries.
Football in India is big business. Premier League pre-season tours bring in large crowds. There is a huge market for replica shirts, both official and not-so-official. There is even a football version of the IPL, the Indian Super League. The reigning champions are Atletico de Kolkata, and the star players include Premier League blasts from the past such as Elano and Josemi. Peter Taylor, Roberto Carlos and Nicolas Anelka are among the managers of the eight franchises.
All this makes it extraordinary that India, a sub-continent with a population of 1.2billion, a rising power with a history of sporting prowess and a love of football, has not produced one single star of note, nor has a football team that has made a meaningful impact on a regional, let alone national stage.
Currently, they’re bottom of their World Cup qualifying group in the third of four rounds for Asia. In their last game in June, they lost 2-1 to Guam. Guam is a tiny Indian Ocean island with a population of a midge over 150,000. I don’t know what microscopic percentage of the Indian populace that is, but the fact India have been beaten by a semi-independent nation in the middle of the ocean named after themselves, shows they are not a footballing power.
They do have the world’s qualifying top scorer so far though. Sunil Chhetri has four in the onion bag thus far.
There is also some evidence of an Indian renaissance in English club football too. A Masters student at Loughborough University has become only the second Indian woman to earn a professional contract at an English football club after signing for West Ham United.
MSc Sports Management student Aditi Chauhan added to India’s sporting history by signing for the East London club. Her achievements are further magnified by the fact that India currently has no professional league or training for female footballers.
The signing was greeted with plenty of positive reactions from Indian fans, with plenty expressing their excitement on social media. The reaction also caused the club to put the goalkeeper’s shirt on their online club store.
She endured a tough start to life in professional football however, as they lost 5-0 to Coventry United in their first game of the season. Still, small steps and all that.
The excitement of a third tier English women’s football team signing a young goalkeeper indicates that Indian football is ready for success. More success than Michael Chopra could ever offer. They just need a small selection of their billion plus potential stars to develop. It surely won’t take long.
One more quality fact before I go. India have qualified for a World Cup once, in 1950, when England made their debut. They withdrew, however. For years the rumour was that they were sulking at not being allowed to play in bare feet. They actually couldn’t meet travel costs.
by Matt Smith