Millennium Post

Losing steam

The Indian Super League (ISL) is approaching and the football fanatics of India are ready to roll out to support their teams. But well, Durand Cup concluded just two weeks ago; an event almost unknown and into oblivion.

Football is one of the most popular sport in the world and the madness for the game in India is no less. It is evident from the popularity that ISL has garnered within just two seasons. The stadiums are abuzz when the ISL matches take place making it the fourth most watched league in the world after English Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain) and Bundesliga (Germany).

The country is constantly talking about the growth that various sports have been seeing since past 3-4 years. There are many examples to substantiate the same, like the success of ISL, Badminton Premier League, Pro Kabaddi and more. Amongst all this glitter, the sad state of the local games is still silent.

Coming back to Durand Cup; found in 1888, it is Asia’s oldest and the world’s third oldest football tournament. That’s how rich India’s football heritage is. Yet, the current awareness and appeal of the tournament and the game, on the whole, is amiss.

Unknown to most, the Indian football in earlier times has also been a part of the Olympics. Of course, being the national game, hockey was a preferred sport for most but football was no less. Today, the local football has lost its spark, majorly owing to the rapid and crazy rise of cricket but the army must be given some credit for keeping the sport alive locally.

Apart from the Durand Cup, the country has another cup that brings talent from the roots; Subroto Cup. Named after Late Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, it is an inter-school tournament across the country. The idea was conceived in 1958 by Subroto Mukherjee for he believed that football needed to be encouraged at grass root level in order to realise the growth of the game in the country. Today, despite being a low-key tournament, Subroto Cup brings out a wave of young talent from the entire country and presents them all to the world of football. 

Subroto Cup is currently going on in the Ambedkar Stadium and all they desire and need are some eyeballs. Syed Khurram Raza says, “Thankfully, due to the good telecast of foreign football leagues, the interest in the game of football has risen again and kids are kicking themselves in the game.” He says that the young are extremely talented, so much that with equal quality of training, they can compete with the talents of Messi and Ronaldo. Along with such positives, he mentioned the flip side of the coin saying, “These kids play only till the school and college level and then say goodbye to the game to pursue a stable career, due to the lack of parent support.

Evidently, there’s a serious need of building a proper footballing system, where the opportunities in the game are abundant. Raza says that the state associations are unable to nurture the sport and manage the activities properly. The sun rays amongst the dark clouds are the fact that the old players have made their way into the system now and are trying to mend the whole system and build a footballing culture.

Most recently, credit to the Olympics, India has been talking about the lack of sporting culture in the country and that’s exactly where the maximum work needs to be put in. The ISL clubs under Reliance Foundation have grass-root level initiatives where they’re reaching out to schools to impart proper football training to the kids in order to build a future for Indian football. Delhi Dynamos FC (an ISL club) is a striking example of the heavy grass-root level work that’s going on in the country at present.

While we see people flocking in to watch the ISL games in Delhi, one begins to wonder the reason for the almost empty stands that the local tournaments witness. The major reason being the awareness. We see the biggest brands entering the world of advertisement to promote their products today. A company like Apple (which is already extremely well known) has also begun to advertise their products but the state football associations do not put much effort into promoting local tournaments and making them visible to the public. For example, one can see hoarding of Durand Cup and Subroto Cup only in Delhi cantonment and other army areas, primarily because of the fact that the army nurtures these local tournaments and have their teams participating. While we see IPL banners all over the city’s roads, Durand Cup, Subroto Cup and other local tournaments aren’t visible and hence, people remain unaware of their grandeur, history and importance.

In a desperate attempt to get an audience to the stadium to watch the Durand Cup, the organisers kept the tickets free, yet to their absolute despair, only 100-150 people came to witness the continent’s oldest football tournament. Asked about this free-tickets strategy, Raza says, “I think the strategy itself was absolutely wrong. Have you ever heard of an important match’s tickets being free? No. In the absence of any big name, the news of free tickets takes away the importance of a match and hence, nobody would want to waste their time on something unimportant.”

With a contrary view, the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association (DLTA), last week, announced the tickets for the Davis Cup World Group play-offs between India and Spain free. The matches took place at the RK Khanna Tennis Stadium in New Delhi and the turnout was huge. But, of course, the catch was that 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal was to play and of course, people flocked in to witness him play on the Indian court. Raza also says that the climatic conditions of Delhi do not support the sport of football completely. The Delhi conditions are a difficult surface to play at but then, at the end it’s all about developing a passion for the game. Raza believes that a major reason that there’s not a good audience turnout for the local tournament is the timing. The matches of all these local tournaments take place during the day and evidently, people do not skip their colleges and work only to watch a local game.

We see all these commercial tournaments like IPL and ISL organising their matches in the evenings. Recently, even DLTA kept the Davis Cup timings in the evening in order to facilitate the flow of the crowd. Surely, the timing seems like the key.

A process of growth takes a lot of time to bear visible and substantial results and the process has definitely begun. There are many areas that the sports associations and the Sports Ministry have to look into. 

Let’s go back in time:

During the earlier time, especially 1970s-1980s, football in Delhi was a rage. Ambedkar Stadium (the hub of local football) has a capacity of about 20,000 and the stadium used to be absolutely crowded for games during those years. The majority of the crowd used to be from Old Delhi and teams like City, Mughals, National, Moonlight, New Delhi heroes and more used to participate in the Durand Cup. Apart from the local and national teams, two foreign teams also used to participate, mostly from Korea and Iran.

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