Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
This is not the head of an international sports federation spouting wisdom. These magical words came from the legendary Nelson Mandela, who not only realised the power of sport, but actually used it effectively during the process to dismantle racism in South Africa. Now made famous by the movie Invictus, a biographical sports drama film based on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, it was the president who got the divided nation to root for the Springboks, the South African national team. The team went on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, just a year after Mandela was sworn in as the country's first black president.
Cut to the ongoing football World Cup in Russia. While fans across the world are being treated to some thrilling games on the field, a key moment shared globally was the video of two TV commentators from Panama bursting into tears as the country's national anthem was being played before their first match with Belgium. The Central American nation is playing in the World Cup for the first time, and the commentators, though on professional duty, couldn't control their emotions and embrace each other and cry "Vamos Panama" before getting down to do their job.
And when Panama scored their first goal in the World Cup, fans in the stadium went berserk, as if they had won the title itself. A minor point that their first goal was the seventh in the match, where they were drubbed 6-1 by England. The team did not proceed into the last 16, but scored one more goal against Tunisia (lost 1-2), making it a memorable outing for the country with a population of only four million.
Cut to India. There is football in the news, but the battle for the ball is in the corridors of power. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has decided against sending the men's and women's football teams to the upcoming Asian Games in Indonesia as they found the teams did not meet the qualifying criteria set by the Olympic body. It has come as a huge setback for the Indian national team (NT) which has gone up in global ranking to 97, from the 173rd spot. Moreover, the NT has qualified for the AFC Asian Cup, the premier football competition in India, after eight years. The team was hoping to gain experience during the Asian Games to put in a good show during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
Indian football has seen good traction during the last few years. Apart from the rise in rankings and qualification for the AFC Cup, the successful hosting of the U-17 World Cup last year helped raise the profile of the country on the football map. With every such milestone, there is renewed hope that India will qualify for the World Cup. It is common talk to add eight years to an ongoing World Cup and claim that we will see an Indian team take the field for the first time on the global stage. So don't be surprised if the current talk is about the 2026 WC.
The thought itself is mind-boggling, but it can be emboldened by the fact that FIFA is contemplating a 48-country WC in 2026, up from 32 currently. The number of spots from Asia is going to more than double from the four now. This should give India, currently ranked 14th in Asia, a decent look-in. But it is still a long shot, as the quality of football in the continent is improving dramatically as Japan's performance in Russia has shown.
But unlike India, the other countries who are leading the top spots have worked their way up with clear plans. There is the much talked-about 100-year plan from Japan, launched in 1992 with a vision to have a hundred professional clubs, and to win the World Cup by 2092. So effective has the plan been that the interest levels in two popular sports, sumo wrestling and baseball, is on the wane.
India lives and breathes cricket, but the interest levels in football is very much visible. The Gen Z and Millennials are huge consumers of the sport, though it might not be of the Indian leagues (I-League, Indian Super League) or the national team's efforts. With access to all the top-flight football in the world on their smartphone screens, it would require some work to grab their attention. The good thing is that national pride will take priority if the team can show promise and grow on the global stage. Then it wouldn't take much to convert them into fans of Indian football, but it can't be done overnight. There is no need for ambitious 100-year plan, for the simple reason that we don't have the mindset of the Japanese.
What the sports ministry, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and its partners, IMG Reliance and Star Sports, needs to realise is that if the Indian NT succeeds, it will bring in immense monetary rewards to each of these entities. For the government in power, it will be a Panama moment (WC not papers) as the power of a billion fans will come together as history is made. It will outshine what Mandela achieved with rugby.
The success of cricket and the monies it commands should be an incentive for those in control of Indian football to work towards developing an Asian-beating, if not a world-beating soccer team. With that as the aim, if not 2026, entry into the next WC in 2030 is achievable. Cricket has shown that politicians from rival parties can work together harmoniously when there is mouth-watering booty to be shared. They just need to experience an epiphany that the moolah rolling in football will make that in cricket look like small change. Then nothing will stop them from ensuring the NT gets everything to achieve success, as those in control are comfortable playing together; it is just a different ball game!
(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage)