In Ranchi’s Rukka village, Franz Gastler, a slender American, who has shaped poor Adivasi girls into successful footballers and fondly named them Super Goats, is not watching the FIFA World Cup.
To the Harvard graduate turned soccer coach, and his girls, the world’s most popular tournament means nothing because soccer is yet to take off from the grassroots in India, currently languishing at 154 below war-ravaged Afghanistan in FIFA world soccer rankings.
Gastler should know.
India has had the cash but not the willpower to shape the world’s most popular game into a religion like the willow game that guaranteed two World Cups and a T20 title. Like hockey, soccer’s last worthwhile title came in 1974 when India shared the Asian Youth Championships title with Iran. That was the perfect trigger for New Delhi to push the game. It failed.
Since then, World Cup – held every four years – is nothing but beer time for Indians who soak in some classy game play by teams from Latin America, Europe and Asia. Restaurants record huge sales, fake jerseys are sold as if there is no tomorrow and bleary-eyed Indian fans attend office after nights of viewing some robust soccer.
As the World Cup progresses, Indians pick whatever teams they like best and root for them without shame or fear of reprisal—they actually spend time around television sets every four years for a solid, breathless month of flying headers, banana corners, overlapping backs, slick one-two passing and goals scored with panache.
But New Delhi has tried, tried really hard to push soccer. Sadly, it has not worked. The Sports Ministry and state governments have spent – for almost three decades – a little over Rs13 million in visits of former Indian footballers and sports officials to various World Cup venues in the hope of discovering the magic wand to revive the game’s fortune in the subcontinent. All returned empty handed, football remained corked for India’s billion plus population.
But the debate over India’s great soccer potential has continued, triggering endless arguments in television studios where failed coaches – every four years – routinely lamented how no one bankrolled programmes that could turn India into a soccer super power. Boringly, they even talked about the so-called glorious 50s when India qualified but still could not make it to the World Cup because then-PM Jawaharlal Nehru had argued that an Olympic gold was a better memento.
Eventually, tired of talking of a no brainer Indian soccer, the coaches have even offered free advice to top players how to make definitive moves to achieve soccer glory. Latest on their list are the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and Mario Balatolli. Do they need such advice? Indian channels would still offer it free, almost like yellow umbrellas that come along with double Snicker packets at departmental stores.
Talking has not helped Indian football. Soccer cognoscenti – India has very few – have labelled such discussions sheer balderdash, comparing it to poor villagers lighting up homes with fireflies in cow dung: the end result certainly not encouraging.
This month, as the World Cup unfolded in its finest glory, a fun website, www.fakingnews.comﾧ joked that the Indian cricket board, world’s richest cricket body, was being urged by Indian fans to pressurise FIFA, the game’s controlling body, to change timings to suit Indians. The fans, joked the website, were confident of BCCI’s expertise of making other countries work/play according to IST and thereby make it possible for them to watch matches without missing on sleep or office the next day.
But slander apart, an answer to end India’s soccer misery has not been found yet.
During the last World Cup, the most common joke in India revolved around whether Paul the Octopus, an eight-armed German cephalopod that rose to fame by selecting winners through its eating habits during the 2010 World Cup, would be able to correctly predict an India’s soccer run. An effort could have been made by rich, overseas Indians but Paul died three months after the last match was whistled over in Johannesburg.
So what does the World Cup mean to Indian football?
Indian footballers are amateurs, in the purest sense of the word. When faced with top competition, they have always hopped around in slow motion like Apollo astronauts on a craggy lunar surface. On a visit to India, the famed Zico – then coach of Japan’s national side – had described Indian footballers as “middle aged men merrily high on a Sunday beer”.
That was not encouraging news for FIFA president Sepp Blatter who had visited India months before New Delhi won the rights to host the U-17 FIFA World Cup in 2017. Blatter ignored soccer jokes about India and hoped the cash-rich South Asian giant would be able to drive some big buck lucre in the world game.
New Delhi is guaranteed that as hosts, India will eventually play in one format of the FIFA World Cup. But that is like chewing chalk for cheese, ostensibly because the junior World Cup has abysmally low television ratings.
So what is the answer for football in India?
Perhaps it can come from Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who wrote an interesting formula for an Irish bookmaker on England's chances of success at the World Cup in Brazil, and who can spin another formula for India.
Hawking (or perhaps his students) analysed 45 World Cup matches England played since their last tournament win in 1966 and analysed 204 penalties taken in shoot-outs, a particular weakness for England.
Hawking found five factors affecting England's performance: political, tactical, environmental, physiological and psychological, the last named revolving around wearing red shirts that Hawking argued gave the team some aggressive confidence.
For some strange reason, the factors seemed strikingly similar to India’s soccer needs.
Hawking’s tips for success may not be news to the England players but the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could definitely secure the services of the famed professor to find a winning strategy for Indian football.
No one knows how much Hawking will charge. Fees for his latest assignment was a secret though the scientist said he split the fee between two charities, one devoted to saving children in Syria, and the other to motor neurone disease, the condition Hawking was diagnosed with as a student.
But if he is hired and his formula works, it would be a scientific miracle for India and its richest citizen, Mukesh Ambani, who soon wants to explode his soccer dream with an IPL type league with world class footballers.
Probably for the first time, Indians will get the sort of soccer you see in Europe. And hopefully, the game’s progress will travel at lightning speed.
After all, when compared to India or China, how deep – demographically – can the pool of talent in Brazil really be? By that yardstick, shouldn’t countries with bigger populations inevitably produce a higher percentage of great athletes? And by that yard stick again, shouldn’t India, the populous former colony of England that invented soccer, be the dominant practitioner?
Soccer is something Indians need to believe in now, perhaps, like their central game of cricket.
The richest Indian has a hell of an assignment on hand. Ambani is starting afresh. That is a big advantage.
The writer is the India Editor for Central European News