Football in India Football and its tradition in East India

Football in Kolkata
Football in Kolkata | Photo: © Saketh Patibandla

Is there a culture of football in India? Can you compare the enthusiasm for football in Germany and India? Does the World Cup impact Indian society? An interview with Debu. 

Is there a culture of football in India - especially in contrast to cricket? 

In the East of the country, football is especially popular, with Kolkata traditionally being considered the hub of the game. Despite home-grown superstars in other sports – Sourav Ganguly and Leander Paes, for example – the most popular sport in Kolkata has unquestionably been the game of football. Indeed, not only in Kolkata, but also in states like Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura and in significant pockets in Assam, football is by-far the most popular game. East Bengal FC and Mohunbagan Athletic Club – both based in Kolkata – are two of the biggest and the most popular football clubs ever in the country. India was, earlier into the past, a much stronger country in Asian football in the 1960s and the 1970s – and used to then be ranked higher than Iran, Japan and South Korea – though with an administrative negligence of the sport, slipped down over the later years.
Goa and Kerala are two other states in India where football is hugely popular, and there are several big football clubs in these regions as well.
Through the 1980s and the early 1990s, several office-based football clubs in India used to routinely challenge the dominance of the Kolkata- and the Goa-based football clubs. These clubs include the JCT and the BSF (both based in Punjab), Mahindra & Mahindra and Air-India (both Mumbai), Kerala Police, and the like. While it is undoubted that these clubs have also contributed significantly to Indian football, these clubs – being not dedicated sports clubs in themselves, but rather a sporting outfit of their employers – have often failed to retain home-grown talent, who have quite often deserted these clubs in favour of other professional clubs for better remuneration. However, Kerala Police produced talents like C V Pappachan, I M Vijayan and V P Sathyan, all of who represented India with distinction, with the latter two later becoming superstars in their own right.
The Salt Lake Stadium at Kolkata, housing slightly less than 120,000 seats, is the largest football stadium in the Indian subcontinent, and the second-largest in the entire world.

Can you compare the enthusiasm for football in Germany and India? 

In Germany, football is by far the biggest sport throughout the country, though in India, football is big only in select regions. However, the enthusiasms of the supporters are big in both, and are certainly comparable to a significant degree. Like football clubs in Europe quite often have a particular set of demographics of supporters, these Kolkata-based clubs also command strong loyalties among particular sets of people. Mohunbagan has traditionally been Kolkata’s (and India’s) most popular club, but after the partition of the country, the influx of refugees from what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) contributed heavily to the swelling numbers of the East Bengal supporters. These two clubs meet at least twice each year, with this ‘Derby’ clash – though certainly not in the same league as Der Klassiker or El Clásico – considered among the biggest club-rivalries in the football world. International football events are widely followed too in India – particularly in the East of the country – and the English Premiership is especially popular. La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A are well-followed as well, with Manchester United, Chelsea and FC Barcelona having the maximum number of supporters. German clubs didn’t use to be widely followed in India, but after FC Bayern’s India tour in 2008 – with Oliver Kahn playing his last match at the Salt Lake Stadium – the support of FC Bayern suddenly increased a great deal.

How does a sporting event like the football world cup impact Indian society? 

The Football World Cup is widely followed in India, though the viewership in the traditionally football-supporting regions is much higher than in the rest of the country. The hiked interest in the World Cup gets translated into a disproportionate increase in the sales of television sets, fan-memorabilia, and the like.
The team of Brazil is by far the most-supported team in India during the World Cups. This phenomenon could be traced back to the visits of Pele, and several other Brazilian stars, to Kolkata in the early 1970s. (Brazil had then won three of the four preceding World Cups, with Pele already a global icon.) After Brazil, Argentina is the most supported team, with the Italian and the German national teams also having significant backing among the general people. In Kolkata, practically nothing moves when matches are on, with the wins of favourite teams hugely celebrated in the streets, complete with paper graffiti, drums, festoons, and the like.

What is the future of football in India? 

Unfortunately, football in India has a variety of malaise, due to which the chances of the re-rise of India as a strong football-playing country in the immediate future are bleak. The administrators of football in India are not professional, and professional bodies of the game aren’t professionally run. This, of course, affects the game in its entirety, and a structured model of talent-spotting and talent-development in practically non-existent at the lower levels (except for very few clubs which do have such a system). Football infrastructure is also quite limited, and with the exception of Kolkata and, to an extent, Kerala and Goa, the facilities in which to nurture and development the game are grossly limited.