In India, football is more than a sport, it’s an emotion. With the FIFA World Cup approaching next month in Qatar, India is waiting with bated breath to support their favorite footballing nations, with most of the country divided into Brazilian and Argentine camps. As a nation, India only managed to qualify for the World Cup in 1950 but withdrew before the start of the tournament. With our own nation never having set foot on the grand stage, what makes football or the World Cup such a grand spectacle for us, Indians?
We have often heard the saying that cricket is a rich man’s game and football is a poor man’s. It is true. For one, you need expensive gear and a pitch while for another all you need is a football and an open field, with two posts on each end. For one, you require ideal weather and favorable pitch conditions, while the other can be played anywhere even amidst a torrential downpour or while it snows. India’s own rich culture of football started with the Durand Cup, which was organized in 1888 by then India’s Foreign Secretary, Mortimer Durand at Shimla, India.
In Kolkata, If one wants to witness the ecstatic love for football, you need only go for the highly heated derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan at Salt Lake Stadium. On derby day, one can see processions of lorries with hundreds of supporters packed together, and bikes cruising to the stadium waving the flags of their respective teams, sloganeering and hurling insults at their rivals as they pass each other on the streets. One can see two or three supporters at regular intervals on the roads, with their flags wrapped around themselves like cloaks, and the lorries stop to pick them up. On reaching the gates of the Salt Lake Stadium, all one needs to do is just stand there and they will be rushed in with the momentum of the crowd, whether you have a ticket or not. The energy inside is electrifying as the spectators chant their club’s folk songs and make Mexican waves. Such incredible passion was also witnessed when India hosted the Under-17 FIFA Men’s World Cup in 2017.
Echoes of similar overflowing sentiments can be found rippling around the world when the world cup tournament is held every four years. But why is there so much passion, even to the point of fanaticism, for the FIFA World Cup that India has never participated in or hosted? It cannot be explained but only experienced. The streets are decorated with graffiti, wall art, and huge flags of different teams hanging above. In every nook and corner, one can see a portrait of our favorite Brazilian legends like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, and Neymar, and Argentine gods of the game like Maradona and Messi. One can see little boys on the street playing football barefoot and using their slippers to make small goalposts. Even if they cannot afford a jersey of their favorite team, one can see a little boy with passion in his eyes for the game using a black marker to draw the number ‘7’ and the name ‘Ronaldo’ on the back of any red t-shirt he has, as he plays with his friends.
We, Indians, find a sense of displaced identity with foreign countries that participate in the grandest stage of world football. The identity becomes so much a part of us that an Indian fan of the Portugal National Team jumps in joy when Portugal scores a goal or sheds tears when their talismanic figure Cristiano Ronaldo gets injured, mirroring sentiments of a Portuguese national thousand of miles away. Be it the magical dribbling skills of the Latin American teams or the speed, power, and precision of the European teams, there is always a reason why Indians love their respective teams. The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein once said that football is the perfect example of harmony created by men.
In light of such ardent enthusiasm for the upcoming footballing ceremony, it is worth shedding a light on our national team and how footballing infrastructure is lacking in our country. It is heartbreaking to see our legendary captain, Sunil Chhetri crying on national television and pleading with fans to buy more tickets and watch our national games. It is heart-rending to see the sports authorities of India cutting short the expenditure of the national football team and spending such huge amounts of money on cricket, in contrast. For a passionate nation such as ours, football will always have a place in our hearts, and one hopeful day in the not-so-distant future, we hope to see India represented in the grandest footballing stage.