Why hasn’t football lived up to its potential in India despite having a history of more than a century in this country?

Just imagine a hundred-year-old coconut tree that has grown to a height of 70 feet but produces coconuts that are no larger than beetle nuts! That's pretty much the case with the 150 year legacy of Indian football. Having said that, let's first rejoice a milestone that our footballers recently achieved - India is back in the top 100 in a list of over 200 nations where the game is played. Now, if that is compared with India's overall stature as a nation of 1.3 billion souls, it would appear grossly inadequate and unsatisfactory but we need to appreciate the ground situation to make sense of the milestone.

The last time India featured in the top 100 was almost 25 years ago in 1993 and that's exactly why we need to appreciate the ground realities and rejoice this feat. Also because of the level of competition among the highest in any sport. It is after all the 'beautiful game' played and followed by over 200 countries with an intensity that is not seen in most other sports. So, for a nation that has fallen way behind in the sport, it will take a little time to get back into some kind of reckoning at least within the Asian circuit against teams like South Korea, Japan, Iran, etc.

Back in the 1950s football tournaments including the World Cup and the football leg of the Olympics were not as well organized or streamlined as they are now. In those days...hold your breath...our Indian players used to play barefoot against teams that played with boots on, complete with spikes! If you're thinking that this is just a piece of interesting news that needs to be absorbed and put behind, then hang on. Now you'll know how far we went on bare feet. Our football authorities refused to participate in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil because the organizers refused to allow our players to play barefoot! That's got to be based on weird logic.

For the sake of argument, let's assume this to be an aberration because our footballers have since then, been playing with boots on. Surely, our players didn't measure up to the level of competition internationally. That would not just be unfair to our footballers but would also be too simplistic an analysis. The role of the football authorities in plunging down Indian football to the bottom of the ranking list can't be swept under the carpet. Their bizarre mindset and weird decisions, along with a fair share of corruption and nepotism are more responsible than anything else, for the state of Indian football. Thankfully now we see fresh winds blowing across our football fields and not surprisingly, the results prove that.

Unlike some perceptions, it's not that Indians don't have the fitness levels to play the game. If you look at how the Indian team plays hockey now, there isn't much to separate them from the 'super fit' European teams, Australia and Argentina. During the last Junior World Cup played in Lucknow, India outran and outpaced all other teams in all the games. Mind you, hockey is a much faster game than football although it compensates the stress with 10 minutes less of play time and four short intervals. But the intensity on the pitch is definitely more than football.

So the fitness excuse theory is rubbish. Let's consider badminton, another sport where high levels of speed, skill, strength, and stamina are required to do well internationally. India has emerged on the international scene as a top badminton nation in the last few years with both our men and women performing really well. That's another blow to the fitness excuse theory. With proper training and management, our footballers can break into the top fifty within the next five years. For now, the team is moving in the right direction, maybe more slowly than we would have liked, but it's just a question of time before our boys break through the ranks.