By Vijay Darda | 16-06-2014
The excitement in faraway Brazil around the 32-nation World Cup Soccer (football) has begun and in the weeks to come is bound to reach a feverish pitch. There will be several tell-tale signs through flags of participating nations, their team jerseys all marking their dominating presence, with animated discussions all over about various facets of the games played and the future ones. Already the role of the Japanese referee in allowing a penalty kick to Brazil in the opening match has become one such subject of debate. Such is the legend surrounding the game that Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God” goal scored in a quarter-final match between Argentina and England continues nearly 28 years after the episode in 1986. At that time after the match, Maradona had said: “The goal was scored a little by Maradona’s head and a little by the hand of God.” But then Maradona had also scored the “Goal of century” in the same match as he went past six England players to brilliantly find the net. The World Cup 2014 edition now underway would perhaps have its own moments of such history.
The beauty of this contest is that unlike in other games the fan following is not constrained by the usual parameters of national or regional identities. Some of the biggest countries that follow this contest like China-600 million fans, India-100 million fans are not even qualifiers what can be termed as the G-32 of football. So, they may be super powers or aspiring super powers elsewhere, in the world of soccer (the term used interchangeably with football) they stand only on the fringes. India ranked at 154. This is the fascination of the game, primarily because kicking a ball or anything that can be kicked around by a child within the kicking range of his or her foot is something like a natural human instinct. For the uninitiated child the joy of having kicked something hard enough is also a delight to watch for his/her parents.
However, apart from this instinctive pleasure there is the major issue of national self-esteem and collective pride. When a nation excels in a sport, it is not just a matter of joy for the team of players, but the entire nation. Thus a small nation of say 3.5 million like Uruguay (one fourth of Mumbai) makes its mark on the soccer field and then thrives with self-esteem. Now as one watches these small nations play for glory and pride, naturally, the thoughts turn to the dismal status of our country in sporting matters. It is not that these thoughts haunt only when the World Cup or the Olympics are on, but there is a nagging concern about an inability to structure a youth sports system that keeps children engaged in physical activity. It is an unmitigated national failure. It is the reason as to why an Indian team is not in Brazil.
The fact that the issue does not even find a mention in any of our agendas, and is not even discussed at any level, further adds to the concerns. The point is that whereas we are passionate about all other issues, like caste religion etc, and we are not even bothered about this aspect, speaks a lot about our national attitude. It is important to add that significant as the achievements of our cricketers are on the field, these add to precious little in the international arena, as is it just a colonial game restricted to the now dissolved British Empire. The fact that Sachin Tendulkar, our greatest cricketer has started taking interest in football is a good sign, but the time has come to focus our attention on the sporting aspect of our development.
It must be accepted at the outset that all our plans to become a great country would remain unfinished as long as we keep finishing at the bottom of the medals tally in the Olympic games, and do not have any presence in global events like the World Cup. All countries like the United States of America, the USSR, and China that have dominated the global scene have also excelled in the games, and they have their own specialities. This search for excellence in a competitive field is a part of the national psyche, and they are not content with being also rans or second best. It is the absence of this national killer instinct that is a major handicap for India.
So as a nation millions of our people are prepared to watch the games past midnight, and cheer teams with which they have no connect, but then have neither the interest nor the drive to take even an iota of the same trouble to promote football in the neighbourhood. This is not start a blame game but only to point out that things have not been always bad for Indian football. Present day fans may not know but India was invited for the first World Cup played in Brazil in 1950 after World War II and declined to participate. At that time India was the Asian football power, and it did win the Asian Games medal in football till 1962.
There is no dearth of sporting models that can be replicated with local variations to groom talent and nurture teams, but the only question is that has not been discussed at any serious level is whether such a task is at all on our agenda? Or are we simply content with the development agenda with building roads and hospitals etc? Has there been an application of the mind at a level where it matters that this is also an integral part of the entire process of nation attaining its full potential? Are we prepared to commit the resources of manpower and money to build a sports infrastructure and talent pool that taken on the best in world ? The pride of soft power can be underestimated only at our own peril. Having a Sachin Tendulkar, or a few individual players in some games is not enough. The Indian supremacy must be established on some chosen areas, and all the other areas cannot be ignored. One hopes that those who matter in such areas are simply not watching the football games on television every night, but are also getting up the reality that India needs a big push for its youth on the sports field.