Nobody said it to his face, but when All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel said last week India’s goal was to qualify for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar, his sunny optimism bordered on grim absurdity.
With FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke sitting next to him, the AIFF chief announced it minutes before signing a 10-year agreement with soccer’s governing body to develop the game in the world’s second-most populous nation enamored otherwise with cricket.
“Indian football is poised for a big leap after a long period of hibernation,” said Patel, also the Indian Heavy Industries Minister.
“There’s going to be a long time before India truly comes up to the expectations of the football-loving community of the country, but one thing I must say is that we are certainly on the right track,” he added.
The timing of his remarks could not have been worse, coming on the same day India slumped to their lowest place, 169th, in the FIFA rankings.
The sport also remains popular only in certain geographic areas, while the TV appetite is restricted to the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.
However, Patel insisted the rankings were not the true reflection of India’s team, who beat a second-string Cameroon team to win a five-nation tournament earlier this month and he remained optimistic FIFA’s support would help develop the game.
Valcke also sounded convinced of soccer’s potential in India.
“You are 1.2 billion people and it’s impossible that 1.2 billion people are just playing cricket. There is definite space for football,” Valcke said.
Lack of infrastructure, a struggling national league, low TV viewership and scant sponsorship mean it is easier said than done, according to a local soccer author.
“I think it was a populist statement,” said Jaydeep Basu, who has authored Stories From Indian Football, an anecdotal history of the game in the country.
“India rank 32nd in Asia and the immediate goal should have been to be among the top 10 in the continent, which would ensure a better draw in international tournaments,” Basu said.
“You have a struggling national league and a pool of less than 90 Indian players to choose your national team from — so much for a country of 1.2 billion! In a vast country like ours, you need 50,000 “C” license coaches, but you have only 2,500. Only 12 of the 32 states have a proper local league,” he added. “If you can solve all these problems and qualify for 2022 World Cup, you [have] got to be a genius.”
He added that the country needed to strengthen the domestic competitions in all the states and improve training for children if it is to repeat the feats of the past.
India won Asian Games gold in 1951 and 1962, and finished runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup in what is considered the golden era of Indian soccer.
The game is still popular in some areas and a Mohun Bagan against East Bengal derby in the eastern metropolitan city of Kolkata still draws up to 100,000 fans.
Nearly 120,000 fans gave a memorable farewell to Oliver Kahn in the German goalkeeper’s 2008 Bayern Munich swansong in Kolkata and Argentina great Diego Maradona brought the city to a standstill during his visit in the same year.
Valcke promised FIFA would do whatever it could to help the country, which is also bidding to host the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, tap into that potential audience and player pool.