The new Indian Super League began play in October. Backed by corporations, Bollywood actors, and cricket stars, and with a cast of famous footballers in the twilight of their careers on the pitch, the new league aims to make football a high-profile sport in the cricket-mad country. The author hopes it’s successful, not for the sake of soccer in India, but for sport. 

 

Pelé and Mother Theresa watch over Gowthamapura (Pawan Mahalingam)

Pelé and Mother Theresa watch over Gowthamapura (Pawan Mahalingam)

 

India has four major religions, namely Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism. If you add cricket to the list, the number is five. The popular adage that many Indians lived by for the last 20 years was ‘If cricket is religion, Sachin is God.’ Now that Sachin Tendulkar, the god of Indian cricket, is almost a year into retirement, Indians are frantically searching for another living, breathing deity.

In Gowthamapura, a lower-middle class locality at the heart of Bangalore, a new god has gained the reverence of residents. At the entrance to the district, a statue of Pelé and a life-size football greet you. Sharing space with Pelé is another revered figure who was beatified by Pope John Paul II – Mother Teresa. It seems that in Gowthamapura, football is religion, Pelé is god, and Mother Teresa the guardian angel.

The Indian Super League (ISL), India’s version of the English Premier League (EPL), began play this past October. It features a motley crew of ex-international stars, Indian players, and celebrity owners. The league has a few star attractions: Marco Materazzi, who etched his place in the annals of football history as the player head-butted by Zinedine Zidane in his final match; David Trezeguet, who scored a golden goal for France in the Euro 2000 finals and ended his international career by missing a penalty in the 2006 finals; Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero, who hasn’t been in the spotlight for over two years now; and Nicolas Anelka, the controversial French striker whose international career ended with his insults of coach Raymond Domenech in France’s ill-fated 2010 World Cup campaign (he was also suspended earlier this year by the English FA for what was deemed an anti-semitic gesture made on the field).

Strangely enough, the captain of the Indian national football team, Sunil Chettri, is not playing the ISL. His club, FC Bangalore, is a part of another league called the I-League, considered to be the main football league in the country. But where the ISL scores over the I-League is marketing. It aims to take football to every television set in the country. And it has money to back its campaign. Consider that the winning team of the I-League gets 70 lakh rupees in prize money (about $115,000), while the winning side of the inaugural ISL season will get a whopping 8 crore ($13 million). Both leagues are recognised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), but they seem to exist in parallel universes.

Why such a well funded football league in India? Barring a faithful few who follow the various English and Spanish leagues, and the general football craze that takes over whenever the World Cup comes around, football largely seems to have slipped under the radar of the cricket-crazy Indian public. The Indian national men’s team is number 159 in the FIFA rankings. It last qualified for the World Cup in 1950 but didn’t participate in that tournament in Brazil.

In direct terms, the world’s largest democracy and second most populous country doesn’t accord the same love to the world’s most popular sport, football, that it does to cricket. It’s surprising that a country of a billion people cannot produce 11 players who can kick a ball around and qualify for the World Cup. It is a simple game, after all. It doesn’t need equipment to be lugged around. But if politics, Bollywood, and religion are anything to go by – all critical barometers of the Indian psyche – Indians aren’t too fond of the simple.

All of India doesn’t bask in the glow of cricket. The states of West Bengal, Goa, Kerala, and Northeast India love their football. The Santosh Trophy, a tournament of teams representing the different states, garners huge crowds. But even in football, cricket isn’t far away. A few team owners in the new ISL are cricket stars – thus bigger celebrities than the players themselves. Atletico de Kolkata is co-owned by former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly. Current captain MS Dhoni is co-owner of Chennayin FC, together with actor Abishek Bachan. FC Goa is co-owned by the bad boy of Indian cricket, Virat Kohli. Even Sachin Tendulkar is involved with the new league, as co-owner of the Kerala Blasters.

It isn’t hard to understand why India is considered to be a cricketing nation. Patches of land, roads, fields, terraces, and corridors all turn into cricket pitches. Stumps are etched on walls and trees. An India-Pakistan face off still puts the brakes on everyday life. But a closer look will reveal the truth – most Indians aren’t crazy about cricket the sport. They are crazy about Indian cricket, in a nation where crazy has numerous dimensions. Frenzied fans are crazy enough to stone the houses of cricketers when the national team loses. Their actions over the years have ensured that any major loss on the cricket field is followed by police protection around the homes of cricketers. There is a plausible explanation for this. Sixty-seven years after independence, there isn’t much to love in modern India. Its infrastructure is falling apart and it ranks low in the ease-of-doing-business index. Farmer suicides and malnutrition – rarities in the developed world – still claim millions of lives. It’s a country at a constant tug of war between the past and the future. Indians love a few things inordinately – cricket being one of them – as there isn’t much else to love.

At the heart of the matter is the very simple truth that India truly isn’t a sporting nation. In the last Olympics, India returned home with its richest haul of medals ever – six. In the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps alone won eight. It just shows the distance yet to be traversed.

You won’t find many grounds in India where people are playing hockey, let alone football. If football is yet to come of age in India, hockey is a tale of an unfathomable fall from grace. From 1928 to 1956, the Indian hockey team won the Olympic gold six times in row. Once considered unbeatable in hockey, the game has suffered at the hands of corrupt and indifferent officials. The unkindest cut is that many of the sport’s heroes have been cast aside, their stories untold and their deeds erased from public consciousness.

Personally, being an unapologetic and unabashed cricket lover, I look forward to the day when India becomes a sporting nation. A nation where sport – including games other than cricket – is a real option and not an aberration.

Right now, my hopes are with the ISL. I’m looking for many things. Close matches. Superb finishes. Genius. Madness. Heroics. A chance for the beautiful game to convert a few hundred thousands and add to its flock. Most importantly, I’m in search of new heroes. It’s on the shoulders of heroes that we stand and glimpse into the future. Heroes are nothing but gods in flesh and bone. If you find them, the rest will follow.

 

Pawan Mahalingam lives in Bangalore. He writes about cricket and other sports on his blog Pages of Sport, and he tweets at @coffeebytwo.