IT IS FOOTBALL World Cup time, and thankfully, though India is not part of this sporting extravaganza, Indian football is making some noise, albeit even if it is for a few days only. But it took a heartfelt appeal from the captain to get the country to talk about the national team and its exploits. Sunil Chhetri was disheartened when he saw only three to four thousand fans gather for the opening match of the just-concluded Hero Intercontinental Cup. In a video message he implored football fans to turn up in large numbers and support the team, even acknowledging the fact that the level of game might not be as good as that the local fans of foreign leagues are used to watching. With the popular cricket captain, Virat Kohli, and legend, Sachin Tendulkar, among others, throwing in their viral might, the next match, the landmark 100th for Chhetri, was a sell-out. And the next one. And the final.
It was a great endorsement for the game of football, at the right time, on the cusp of a World Cup. But everyone connected with the game in any manner will agree that it was just an emotional moment tailor-made for social media with which everyone connected and gave the game its 90 minutes of fame. And that much more is required to take the country anywhere near even whiffing distance of an entry into the club of elite countries which sweep the globe off its feet for one month every four years. It would start with instilling in the millions of football fans of both world and Indian football a sense of national pride in the team, at whatever level they are playing. As Javier Ceppi, the CEO & Tournament Director of the FIFA U-17 WC India 2017 Local Organising Committee, tweeted in response to Chhetri's video:
While the I-League, and now the Indian Super League (ISL) have created fans for local players at some level, they and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have ignored the importance of the national team and the local hero. There is a huge fan following for multiple clubs from Premier League and La Liga and these fans will continue to support the Arsenals and the Barcelonas. The whole emphasis and effort should have been to convert them to support their national team, not support only another club team in the local leagues.
"Care" is the operative word in Ceppi's message. Once you start caring for the national team, the fan following is a given, and not restricted to where you are ranked on global lists or which of your players will start for Real Madrid. That too will happen, but it a process and right now a sincere plea did the trick, but it can't be the norm. With fan following comes the brands with their marketing budgets, and then the gravy train starts moving.
That there are brands waiting to set aside a substantial amount is clear through the activities they are spending on for the World Cup. There might not be a comparison, but it a mindset which needs to be capitalised on. Major global brands are partners with Fifa, and India is an exciting market for them. Kia Motors, automotive partner of the 2018 WC, in fact has included two youngsters from here as part of 64 whom they are taking under their Official Match Ball Carrier (OMBC) programme.
Geared towards all young football fans who aspire to be the star footballers of the future, the campaign selected 50 kids across India and conducted auditions based on football skills, agility, attitude, and teamwork. Chhetri shortlisted the finalists, and while two will be OMBCs, four others will also be taken to Russia as spectators. The whole exercise, apart from being invaluable for the chosen six, captured the minds of thousands of aspirants and their families, thereby creating a huge impact for the growth of the game.
Other brands are also equally involved in using innovative strategies to drink form the Cup. Visa, Coca-Cola, Budwieser, adidas, and many others are using their global affiliation with the game to build more resonance with the knowledgeable fan, as well as a large target audience which wakes up only during the World Cup.
While this casual audience, and more focused ones like the participants in the Kia programme will naturally be drawn to the highest levels of the game exhibited across the world, it will require some effort to get them to warm up to the skills of the national team. This is where the league owners and AIFF come into play. They need to realise the fact that the long-term success of their multi-million properties also depends on a positive mindset for the national team and pride.
The need for more Chhetris to evoke a sense of patriotism will be felt even more in the next few years as Indian football starts finding its feet. But you will need to nurture the sport, its heroes, and the followers in order to get fans to the ground willingly to cheer their country's team, rather than heed a footballer's ardent entreaty.
The thought that the national team will only have fans if it enters a World Cup is incorrect. The official broadcaster of the World Cup in India, Sony, is running an advertisement campaign revolving around supporting your 'doosri' country, since our country has not qualified. They are playing on the fact that every football fan has at least one country which they support from the 32 battling for the title. A clever way to generate more interest, and rake up the viewership numbers.
But the sentiment for most fans of the Indian team is summed up in a tweet by Chiranjit Ojha, author of 'Rise Above the Clouds: Incredible Story of Aizawl FC's Rise to Become Champions of India':
"While we don't have a doosri country, we join you in celebrating this epic footballing showdown, hoping one day our only country India will be there."
It is not a pipe dream as many are realising, but unless the powers controlling football don't put in a concerted effort on all fronts to build on this growing movement, we will always be left seeking pleasure in the success of a doosra country and a teesra club.
(This column first appeared in Financial Chronicle on 11 June 2018)