With the 2018 FIFA World Cup less than two weeks away, it’s no surprise that the tournament has become one of the most common talking points in many circles. Whether or not you are a football enthusiast, the FIFA World Cup has its own special appeal for each of us, which makes it the most watched sporting event in TV history, with a global viewership of 3.5 billion. And as we inch closer to the opening night of the biggest event the sporting world has to offer, we’ll all be cheering for the likes of England, Brazil, Germany, Spain, or any of the 32 teams playing in Russia.
Even in a country like India, where the number of football followers is clearly outnumbered by the number of cricket enthusiasts, the FIFA World Cup is one tournament that can bring the public on one platform to follow the beautiful game. And because of the following this tournament receives, it is impossible for someone to miss it, even if he or she isn’t interested in the game. We’ve already seen this with campaigns like #MeriDoosriCountry from Sony, which is bound to drive the viewership for the World Cup even further.
There’s no doubt that more Indians taking an interest in a sport that is not Cricket is good news for Indian football. A tournament as big as the FIFA World Cup definitely shows the kind of excitement the sport can generate in what is primarily considered a ‘Cricket loving country’. An audience of 85.7 million Indians for the 2014 World Cup by itself tells the story of the kind of enthusiasm the tournament brings. And as a football lover, it is also promising to see the progress we have made in football in the last few years, with the start and rapidly increasing popularity of the Indian Super League and the rise of the National team’s FIFA ranking from 173 to 97 in the space of just over two years, on the back of some encouraging performances, the latest of which was a 5-0 win over Chinese Taipei in the opener of the Intercontinental Cup, inspired by a hat-trick by Sunil Chhetri, the Indian captain.
While the growing interest in football and the improvements of the national team are certainly positive signs for the future of Indian football, it was quite painful to see Sunil Chhetri, the captain of the team, an icon of the sport in India, make a plea to Indians across the country to show some more support for the national team. And while most players across the world would be out celebrating after scoring a hat-trick that led their team to a 5-0 win, we have here a player making a simple heartfelt request to the rest of the country. And with just over 2,500 fans watching the game from the stands (which is incidentally even less than the number of Indians who travelled to Brazil to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup), you can clearly understand why. Just so that India can one day achieve the heights we all dream of in the sport. A sport that quite clearly, more than interests us, a fact the 85.7 million viewers of the 2014 World Cup can confirm.
The hard truth is that we’ve all been guilty of not showing enough support to our national football team, even me. Especially me in fact. As a serious football follower, someone like me is more at fault than anyone else for not playing a part, however small, in the growth of Indian football. While I support Manchester United throughout the year, I haven’t given our national team the credit the players and staff are due for the strides they have been making. While it’s always been a dream for me to watch Manchester United play at Old Trafford, I, and possibly many others like me, somehow failed to realise that the other team that we all want to see doing well in football at a global level, is much closer to home. A team I can watch at the stadium without having to travel halfway across the world. And while I do follow India’s matches through one of the many online streaming channels, I have spectacularly failed to show my team my support where it matters, as did a lot of us.
And this lack of support is quite evident in the fact that most IPL matches with ticket prices starting from Rs. 1,500/-, often witness a packed stadium, but the match between India and Chinese Taipei, with tickets priced at just Rs. 250/- saw just over 2,500 fans in the stadium. It is evident in the fact that a large part of the public recognizes ISL teams for the Bollywood or Cricket stars that support them, and not for the players who play for the team. It’s evident in the fact that we know everything there is to know about a cricketer, including their personal lives, but most of us may not even be able to name 5 players from the Indian football team. It’s evident in the fact that we know everything about the European clubs and countries we support, but we know nothing about our own football team.
But it’s never too late to start taking your first step, and we can certainly show our support for our team. For starters, simply by watching and cheering a Sunil Chhetri led team walk on to the pitch at the Mumbai Football Arena on 4th June to face Kenya, and on 7th June to face New Zealand, and hopefully on 10th June for the final of the Intercontinental Cup.
In less than two weeks, we’ll all be supporting our favourite teams at the World Cup, cheering either England, Brazil, Germany, Spain, France or any of the 32 teams in Russia. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, the World Cup and the plethora of global stars who will be at the tournament is another chance to get more Indians interested in football. But before we go on to support #MeriDoosriCountry, let’s not forget to show some love and support for #OurPehliCountry.