A few months before the 1990 world cup, Mohun Bagan legend and ex India international Prasun Banerjee published a book on football. Titled “Football Ghorana, Biplab o Bibortan” (The revolution and Evolution of Football Styles), it did a country wise coverage of the evolution of football. Beautifully written and wonderfully researched, the book was easily one of the best books written in Bengali on football. In his book, Banerjee made a few predictions, one of them was Japan qualifying for the 1998 world cup. Keeping in mind the fact that Japan had just started a professional league at that time, his prediction was brilliant.
In one part, he complained that Indian football fans have become too snobbish, thanks to the telecast of world cups. He lamented the fact that Inter-School tournaments like Haradhan Shield no longer attracted fans. Instead, the fans preferred watching a Maradona or a Van Basten on TV. He expected it to get worse.
It actually did.
With the explosion of cable TV in India in the mid-90s, Indian football fans were introduced to leagues in Spain, Germany, Italy and England. The telecast of Champions’ League football began full-fledged in the 1998-99′ season. People, who were never interested in football, suddenly became aware of the magnetic attraction of a Barcelona or a Manchester United. Allegiances were quickly forged. It gave rise to a whole new generation of football lovers in the 2000s, unsurprisingly the team that won a treble in 98-99′ garnered a large fan base – Manchester United. Thanks to the incessant telecast of the English Premier League, the new “EPL” generation sacrificed hours of sleep to watch their favourite teams play.
It’s quite fine if fans do open up to the diverse world of European football, the problem lies in the fact that most of these new generation fans don’t care about Indian football, at all. You can come across people who know who is the all-time top-scorer in EPL or La Liga, but don’t know who top scored in previous season’s i-League. There are fans whose biggest wish in life is to watch a game in Anfield or San Siro, but they blissfully ignore the game that is being played in a Cooperage stadium in their backyard.
Indian football does have a lot of problems, but this is unarguably one of the biggest. The ignorance of Indian football fan base is a problem that cannot be solved easily. In India, you will find fans of all big European teams, there are chances of people supporting the likes of Newcastle United or maybe even Bolton Wanderers, yet local games go unattended.
Mahindra United, one of the richest football clubs in India rolled off their football project a few months ago. One of reasons behind this decision was the poor attendance for their matches. Consider the fact that they played in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the most densely populated cities. Football fans for local teams are concentrated in only few zones, namely Kerala, Goa, West Bengal, Punjab and Sikkim.
However, Kolkata derbies can still garner a 100,000 strong crowd. Local league matches for the big-3 teams usually attract a sizeable crowd. This in turn creates a huge void for other clubs. Teams like Tollygunge Agragami or Chirag United have had some patches of success in recent times, but they have struggled to build up a fan base, as the populace is already divided between the bigger clubs. Tollygunge declined into oblivion due to a visible lack of support.
In Kerala, teams attract good crowds, however, despite producing a legion of quality players over the years, club football in Kerala has never flourished. FC Cochin tried hard to become a professional club, but became defunct. Viva Kerala looks like going the same way. A financially well tuned club can tap into the enthusiastic fan base, but so far it hasn’t happened.
Goa is fast turning into the capital of Indian football. Most Goan clubs attract decent crowds. Goa’s biggest advantage is the non-partisan nature of fans. Salgoacar fans can go and cheer for Churchill Brothers, something that never happens in Kolkata.
What is the possible reason behind the lack of support? One commonly cited reason is the lack of quality in Indian football. To an extent it is true. But then again this further highlights the snobbish nature of the Indian fans.
Consider the example of Accrington Stanley – a very modest club in a small English town. They have never won a major trophy in their 44 year old history. They have a 2000 seater home stadium. Last season in League Two, they finished 15th and were generally poor. Yet, their home games attracted an average of 1000 people. That’s 50% of the total capacity. Do you think the fans went to the stadium to watch their team lift a trophy? Hardly, they went because they wanted to be a part of the community, because they wanted to cheer their team irrespective of how they play.
This is a sharp contrast to the case of Mahindra United. Mahinda United were one of India’s strongest teams and had been crowned national champions’ just a few years ago. They won a flurry of trophies in recent times and boasted of a stellar line-up. They also played a very attractive brand of football. Yet they never attracted the same percentage of crowd as Accrington did.
There’s no reason that an Accrington fan doesn’t get to watch EPL. But despite that, he will go to watch his local team. However, an Indian fan will gloat all over his EPL teams but won’t go to watch a Mahindra game. We complain about India not making to major International tournaments, but how many times do we go to a qualifier game India plays ? Do we go to our stadiums to create an intimidating atmosphere when our country is playing somebody ? Sadly, crowd advantage for a home game for the national team is often absent.
The other reason is, there aren’t local teams to support always. Though it is a valid reason, but that shouldn’t stop someone supporting clubs from other parts of India. “If you are born in Bangalore, it shouldn’t stop you from supporting Mohun Bagan or JCT“. If fans can feel connected with a club in Manchester or Madrid, then there’s no reason he won’t feel that for a club in Kolkata or Goa.
Indian football clubs lacked organized fan clubs in the past. However, with advent of fan clubs like Sabuj Maroon Swapno, Mariners on the Move (for Bagan) or East Bengal – The Real Power, it is easier to identify one with a fan base. It’s high time that football watching public in India woke up to the game that is played on their doorstep. You can wear an Arsenal jersey, but it won’t hurt to sport Dempo colours once in a while. It’s saddening to note that names of Indian football players/clubs are often used for mocking in social networking sites. “Manchester City will buy Baichung Bhutia next” or “X club played so poorly that even Mohun Bagan can beat them”, people should stop doing this.
You might never have a chance to watch a match in Old Trafford in your life, but watching a match in Yuva Bharati Krirangan is quite possible. The atmosphere during an East Bengal – Mohun Bagan derby is as good as it gets in any other derby match around the world. It is an experience of a lifetime. Appreciating Indian football will only broaden the horizon of a football fan. Indian football fans have no right to point fingers at mismanagement as long as they don’t bother to follow local teams.