An ambitious project to awaken a sleeping giant of Asian soccer looks like confirming Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s famous remark that India pricks up its ears only when comparisons with China are made.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March lamented India’s decline from one of Asia’s top soccer nations in the 1960s to its current position at 163rd in the FIFA rankings, sandwiched between the Comoros and Tajikistan.
“Unfortunately, over the decades we have slipped to the lowest rungs,” the PM said in his weekly radio talk. “Today our ranking in FIFA is so low that I feel reluctant even to mention it.”
With China embarked on a multi-billion dollar mission to become a soccer superpower by 2050, India looks set to follow suit with its own plan to raise its status in the game to match its burgeoning economic power.
Come October, India, most famously described as soccer’s sleeping giant by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, will launch a programme to engage more than 11 million children in soccer-related activities.
All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials will not share details of the FIFA-backed programme yet, but according to a government statement, “Mission 11 Million” will be launched in about 30 cities across the country.
With India hosting the under-17 World Cup next year, states have been asked to promote football in a pattern similar to the trend across the border in China.
And while the AIFF are looking to engage as many of the country’s 1.3 billion people as possible, they have also cast their net wider with a global scouting programme to identify talent in the Indian diaspora.
“The idea is to increase the talent pool,” former India captain and head of the scouting programme Abhishek Yadav told Reuters.
“We can’t guarantee that we can unearth 20 players overnight. It’s an attempt, which we believe might work. There’s no harm in trying.”
The programme encourages anyone under 16 with an Indian passport to post, on a soon-to-be-launched portal, a two-minute video from a competitive match.
While this has added to the buzz in the country around the hosting of the under-17 World Cup, not everyone believes India is standing on the cusp of a soccer resurgence.
“‘Mission 11 Million’ has a nice ring to it but with only 3,000-odd certified coaches around, who’ll teach these kids to play soccer?” soccer writer Jaydeep Basu told Reuters.
As well as the lack of qualified coaches, Mr Basu cites a fast-shrinking number of pitches – China plans to build 70,000 around the country by 2020 – and paucity of infrastructure as the major handicaps for Indian soccer.
The AIFF is also preoccupied with a messy merger of two Indian leagues, which jeopardises the future of several sides, including a couple of century-old clubs in Kolkata.
The franchise-based India Super League (ISL), which is promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Rupert Murdoch’s Star India TV, looks set to supplant the I-League.
“I’m afraid the ISL franchises have no soccer pedigree and I doubt if they have any long-term commitment to the game either,” Mr Basu said. “Who can guarantee they won’t switch to another business if they suffer losses in ISL?”
There is, however, no denying the ISL’s spectacular success in gaining a foothold in India’s cricket-dominated sporting landscape since the 2014 launch of the league with celebrity owners.
The ISL debuted as the fourth biggest soccer league with an average attendance lower only than Germany’s Bundesliga, the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.