It still seems like a dream. It is a dream! * pinches self * No, it isn’t! The Indian Super League is breaking records one after another. The ISL’s attendance record is better than the Italian Serie A! When the so-called “awakening of the giant from its slumber” kicked off on 12 October this year, I never even imagined ISL would come close to achieving such a feat.

The finalists, Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata, are occupying the top positions in terms of popularity too, with the average attendance above 45,000. For a country ranked below 150 in the world football rankings, this is a really huge accomplishment. But it is not the end. More is to be done if India wants to stand a chance to fight the European footballing giants. There is a dire need for improvement from the grassroots level.

Events like the ISL, the I-League and the Coca-Cola Cup have made a good effort in shifting the focus of the footballing world towards India, but now that the world is watching us, shouldn’t we try to up our level? How can we improvise?

Search, search and search

In a country of 1.25 billion people, it would be a Herculean task to go to every school in order to dig up the hidden talents. Fortunately, organizations are coming up to lend a hand to break down the tedious task. The Coca-Cola U-15 Cup, a joint initiative of Coca-Cola and the All India Football Federation, has been on the hunt to find hidden talent in football since 2009. The main aim of this program is to unearth more and more talented footballers and help them explore their full potential. By guiding these prodigies in the right direction, the tournament also hopes to strengthen India’s team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017.

Of course, Coca-Cola has undertaken similar initiatives in other countries too, the primary example of which is the hugely successful Copa Coca-Cola. With the AIFF finding willing partners like Coca-Cola joining hands to conduct football clinics and tournaments, the Indian football talent hunt has found a new catalyst. But there are still a few problems that need to be addressed.

The youngsters in India want to play and watch football

The inclination of Indian youngsters towards football is increasing day by day. The best thing that the AIFF can do at the moment is to give the youngsters what they want. They just need decent training facilities.

But then again, we shouldn’t go on the defensive and use the lack of infrastructure as an excuse. We have come across examples of many teams and players who started with nothing, trained, and won everything. SD Eibar, which recently won promotion to La Liga, has one of the smallest stadiums in Spain; its capacity is just around 5000. But even with a low-income, it managed to break into the top-tier. Let the small club from the Basque County be our inspiration.

eibar
SD Eibar’s stadium. It has a capacity of around 5,000 seats.

There is no dearth of passion, but it needs to be fostered

Jumping the boat is easy. But staying and trying to save a sinking one is a tough job and requires passion. I can sense an increase in the football fan following in India because of the recent exploits of the ISL.

That’s all very good. But is being passionate for two to three seasons enough? No. The fans are the ones who actually run a football club. Without them, there is no show. So football clubs need to forge a long-standing partnership with the fans.

When Manchester City won the Premier League in 2012, I saw a video of an old man saying, “I followed them (City) for 75 years”. If clubs work on building such a relation between the fans, then I bet football in India will never be the same.

That said, every relationship works on a “give and take” basis. The fans have poured into the stadiums to see their club play and cheer for their local heroes, but that should continue in the future.

In the case of Eibar, it was really tough for them to compete with the Spanish giants since they didn’t have the resources to spend money in millions. That burden eventually fell on the fans, and they responded brilliantly. At the start of the season, to back the club, the fans purchased a significant portion of the club’s shares; the people of Eibar had stood up for their town’s pride.

The future of Indian football is bright

There are obstacles galore for Indian football, but the people have shown they are willing to overcome those. When South American countries with stumbling economies can produce a bunch of superstars, why can’t a nation as big as India produce a few too? We have always blamed the system. But now the opportunity has come knocking at our doorstep.

The ISL is one of the best things to have happened to Indian football, in terms of publicity and reach. And grassroots tournaments like the Coca-Cola Cup are already in place, functioning smoothly, to make sure development at the bottom.

The ball is in our court. Let’s kick it!

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