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A question after Sunil Chhetri's plea: Does AIFF do enough to promote football in India

A question after Sunil Chhetris plea: Does AIFF do enough to promote football in India

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Published: 4 Jun 2018 5:01 PM GMT
"Sold out" said the event page for the match between India and Kenya nearly a day before the fixture. A joyous occasion indeed when Mumbai apparently stepped up to support a national team, the national football team. The city, extremely famous for it screenings of the Premier League and the La Liga, for the passion with which European Football is followed by its citizens have now, for a moment, turned their attentions to the puny Indian squad- by comparison a baby taking its first steps in the international arena. But the story and effort that has gone behind this can be attributed to just one man. The captain, Sunil Chhetri. To the people cheerfully holding up their tickets to proclaim their love for football, it might serve as fitting to offer them a rude reminder about how the first game between India and Chinese Taipei was played in front of a near empty stadium. It took a homemade video from the captain no less to rectify this. Which brings us to the question- why was it on Sunil Chhetri to rally the masses in support of a sport that has no little fan following in the country? The apex body of the sport, All India Football Federation, has been so stranger to controversy itself. Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms of the body has been the fact that it has failed to bring the structure of the I-League anywhere close to that of the more glamourous and successful Indian Super League. A small example of this would better explain the point. In 2017, Aizawl FC scripted a fairy tale to win the I-League becoming the first club from the North East to do so. As a reward, they took home a meagre cash prize of one crore from the organisers while the teams that finished second and third took home 60 lakhs and 40 lakhs respectively. By comparison, that very year, ISL champions Atletico de Kolkata received a cash reward of Rs 8 crore How does one explain this discrepancy? While players have been known to say that playing facilities and infrastructure have definitely taken a turn for the better in the recent past, the fact still remains that the Indian Super League has done in a few years what the older I-League was not able to. What should have been done by the management of the sport in the country had to be done by the captain.

"The level is not the same...not even close".

What was perhaps most heartbreaking about Sunil Chhetri's video was how self-deprecating it was. There was a point, a moment, where the man who played his 100th international match for Team India had to literally fold his hands to ask supporters to fill up the stadiums. As if that was not shameful enough, moments later, it was accompanied with an admission that Indian football was in bad shape- especially when one compares it to the European giants but why is this the case? Isn't it the job of the administration to ensure that the team is marketed properly? Additionally, doesn't it fall among their responsibilities to ensure that the fans have a memorable experience when they do come to watch the games- that they are encouraged to keep returning to the stadiums and cheer their heart out for the beautiful game? Instead of that, opacity seems to be the continuing norm for AIFF. Matches are disorganised, venues not finalised until there is very little time left- is this how it hopes to popularise the Indian football team? One thing Sunil Chhetri did say right, however, was that this is an important juncture for the Indian football team. On the national front, India has qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and
even managed to make it past the first round of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
And what's more, the team put in consistent performances over the last couple of years to climb into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings which is a monumental achievement when viewed objectively. So, why? Why is this still the case?

The choice of venue

The current 4-Nations tournament underway in Mumbai is part of the AIFF's efforts to prepare the team as they set out to compete in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. But here, the choice of the Sports Complex in Andheri strikes as a somewhat strange one. Why not use the venues so wonderfully constructed for the U17 World Cup? They were handpicked, chosen locations which were sure to garner the crowd regardless of the non-effort that was put in by the AIFF to publicise the tournament. In fact, after Sunil Chhetri's video, the official handles and La Liga and BBC came all out on social media to take Sunil Chhetri's message to the world. That must have been embarrassing. Add to that the fact that the Indian team never seem to have enough fixtures on the international level in India and it's not hard to realise why Indian football never has the sufficient grasp on the public consciousness enough to become a part of popular culture. Compared to India, other Asian nations that have qualified for the 2019 inter-continental tournament, the AFC Asian Cup, will all be in action in the first quarter of the year and, undoubtedly, this will help them prepare better. Bear in mind that this is a tournament that India has only qualified this year for the first time since 2011- a wonderful possibility. So why isn't more being done? This entire saga will have meant nothing, Sunil Chhetri's spontaneous plea will amount to nothing if things do not change for Indian football; if the entire structure is not reshuffled. From the fans, to the media, to AIFF itself- the entire mindset needs a shift. When India hosted the U17 World Cup, the tagline for it read "Football Takes Over". We certainly hope that football does indeed take over in the truest sense of the phrase following Sunil Chhetri's video message. Oh captain, we hope your plea for support strikes a chord where it's required.
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