What a football match taught me about new India
At the FIFA U-17 cup, an assertive patriotism is on display, while the Northeast shows it's the country's sports powerhouse.
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Watching a football match at a stadium with a heaving, roaring sea of teenage schoolers can be exhilarating. It can also be educative. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you can see signs of a new nation peeking out of its old shell, hear the rasping of tidal social change. First, it is hard to believe that the city of Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli and a hundred wrestling dustbowls has silently spawned a generation of very young and intense football lovers.
At the India-USA tie at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday, schoolboys aged fifteen, sixteen or seventeen knew the names of everyone in the under-17 home team, that the national coach had trained junior Benfica, and other such minutiae.
“Let’s leave, boys. The game is over,” says the teacher as USA lead 2-0. There are 20 minutes still left in the match, but he wants to avoid the crowd rush after the final whistle. A collective howl of refusal ensues. “We’re not leaving till it is over, sir,” says a student. “This is why our country is lagging in football. We don’t back our own team.” In spite of the years of going to the stadium to watch India matches, one is taken aback by the new, vocal, assertive, demonstrative patriotism among the youngest of fans.
The frequent and unabashed “Bharat mata ki jai” (to put things in context, most students in this particular enclosure were from English-medium city schools), the loud singing along with the national anthem, the full-throated “India, India” chants are not familiar memories. And a mean-spirited competitiveness. When a student praises a USA player, his friend says, “Yeh modern India hai, bhai. Praise our own team.” A definite lack of grace, as also the spirit to ruthlessly compete, defend self-interests and achieve. These youngsters are very differently wired.
Hills are here
Another unmistakable scent in the air is the slow rise of the Northeast as a sporting powerhouse. Nine of the 21 selected for the under-17 World Cup squad are from the region — seven from Manipur, and one each from Assam and Sikkim. There were thousands of northeastern boys and girls, men and women in the crowd. Sports can be a major agent of transformation in the region heartland India has neglected for so long.
Football has the potential to surpass cricket in popularity in India. Photo: PTI
The sports ministry has now started special area games schemes. It is setting up national sports university in Manipur. The Prime Minister, who was present at the ground on Friday, has increased sports funding by 40 per cent. The government is planning to include sports in the curriculum. In Nagaland, the Centre has sent the state’s Department of Youth Resources and Sports a proposal to build 100 football grounds, including 10 indoor and outdoor stadiums each.
What could be
Football has the potential to surpass cricket in popularity in India. One sees a massive rise in interest in the game among students, possibly because of dazzling marketing of the English Premier League, La Liga or Serie A. It could also become a massive earner and a hub of jobs. Around 2 per cent of Brazil’s GDP comes from football, provides thousands of jobs, and has a positive impact on the country’s trade balance.
A 2014 paper in the State University of Rio de Janeiro, titled The football business in Brazil: Connections between the economy, market and media, says: “The sports industry includes entertainment, consumer relationships, business and human resources (athletes and workers), all of which are indicators that reflect the importance of the sport in macroeconomic terms… the media, including TV, are tied to economic interests at the same time that they cause sociocultural effects through the monoculture of football.”
India’s new fervid nationalism and a growing sports culture are ripe ingredients to excel in the world’s most popular sport. It is a goal worth hunting.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)