Egypt qualified for the World Cup this year riding on the Mo Salah hype train. Costa Rica, the tiny country with a population of just 4 million is ever present too, trying to cause upsets like it did the last time around. While in the big leagues, Ronaldo as usual attempts to carry the hopes of an entire nation (Portugal) on his shoulders as he tries his way to beat the South American nations of Messi and Neymar. And then we have India, a country with over 1.3 billion people, struggling to stay even in the top 100 (Currently ranked 97th).
We’re ranked 1st in Cricket, but in other sports, we’re almost nowhere to be seen.
Often after Common Wealth Games and the Olympics when one of our athletes wins a medal, ministers come and shower money on the athletes, but not on the development of the sport. Dipa Karmakar (in)famously returned her BMW that Sachin Tendulkar had gifted her because she didn’t know how owning an expensive car would help her. Which leads us Indians, to support other nations. With the English Premier League being the most famous and most followed league in the world, it is not a surprise that most of the Indians support England at the World Cup, which is ironic given the history the two countries share. It's extremely easy to blame the facilities, "India lacks the infrastructure to develop the sport." But that’s not true. It's not like India doesn't have football stadiums, or doesn't have the coaches. What India’s true, crippling problem is- The mentality. It’s true, We Indians lack the mentality. [Just last week though, Sunil Chhetri, India’s football captain uploaded a humble video pleading the viewers to come to watch India play their football matches in Bombay, even if the quality wasn’t as good as that of England or France, it did work, compared to the previous match, which only 2500 fans attended, a whopping 18,000 fans attended India play against Kenya, which India won 3-0, and the next match of India v/s New Zealand is already sold out.] Look at the biggest players in the world. Neymar learned his trade on the streets. He would play football all day in the small lanes in the crowded cities of Brazil. Gabriel Jesus was painting the murals at the 2014 world cup in Rio and is now in the starting 11 in the Brazilian squad. Aguero did the same in Buenos Aires, Ronaldo, played on the streets of Santo Antonio. The best players in the world never had the greatest facilities while growing up, they just played from an early age. Every time the world cup is around the corner, you know Brazil has a real chance of winning it, cause no matter what, there is that one kid who became so good playing on the streets that he can light the international stage on fire.
But are the times, FINALLY, changing for the better in India?
During my field visits, I often travel to really small towns and villages in Odisha. What I had anticipated was that I’d see kids playing around, but what was surprising was that these kids were playing football. Open grounds had goal posts on either end, with no cricket pitch in the center. Kids would be in lanes trying to kick around a battered ball, not with the level of skill as the Brazilians, but they would still be playing.
One kid “toe-poked” the ball in my direction, and I showed him how to pass and shoot and to never to poke it unless he wanted to injure himself. Happily, he went back to teach his friends the same. And THIS is exactly what’s been lacking in India all these years; Kids playing football from a young age. One of the borrowers I met, her son spoke about how all the big kids play on a nearby ground. He’s intimidated by them, so, for now, he just goes to watch them play, try and learn what they’re doing, how they’re kicking the ball, and come back home and try it in his yard.
What has brought this change? No one knows.
Maybe Ronaldo and Messi have been scoring so many goals and have been omnipresent in newspapers and tv ads; Maybe the sport itself has become more popular worldwide ;
(courtesy of Wikipedia)
Maybe the fact that the world community is taking an effort in putting India on the map (Ranveer Singh, the actor, is The Premier’s league brand ambassador. The U-17 World Cup was held in India last year.) But no matter what the reason is, if more kids are now kicking a football instead of picking up a cricket bat, you can be rest assured, that soon enough, next time the discussion will be which India player we like the most at the World Cup.