Sunil Chhetri’s Appeal – The Uncomfortable Truth about Indian Football

When the captain of a national football team has to come on social media and request attendance at stadiums, the problem is much bigger than what meets the eye. The response to Chhetri’s plea, overwhelming as it was, also had shades of myopia.
Sunil Chhetri: The titan of Indian sport who's fighting the tough, but important battle for attention. If only his audience had the vision to support him.
Sunil Chhetri: The titan of Indian sport who’s fighting the tough, but important battle for attention. If only his audience had the vision to support him.

A hundred international caps is not a fortune many footballers the world over win in their lifetimes. The international calendar allows for around 10 matches every year, and for a country like India, who don’t get to play the marquee tournaments just yet, the chances are slimmer still. For Sunil Chhetri to have accomplished what he has, and enter his 100th appearance looking fitter and more charged-up than ever, must count as one of the greatest gifts for Indian sport.

As the match against Kenya came near, it ideally should’ve been time to celebrate Chhetri’s career so far in the national colors; the journey of a lean, wiry kid emerging in the shadows of Bhaichung, to taking over the mantle of India’s talisman and dragging them into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings. Yet, the loudest noise was his own, coming from mobile phones and laptops, pleading to have more than just the reserve-bench clap his team for once.

The response, mildly put, was overwhelming. At the time of writing this, Chhetri’s tweet has around 190 thousand likes and retweets. Public figures from across the country, from sports and beyond, have rallied behind their captain, speaking about the importance of supporting a national team. Even the official channels of La Liga and Bundesliga laid down their own tributes, claiming to have heard Chhetri, and urging people to flock the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai. The soft-spoken plea seemed to have almost taken the shape of a war cry. It doesn’t take much to incite an Indian, and the folded hands of Sunil Chhetri hit hard like a punch to the chest. On the day of the match, the stadium was packed to its brim despite customary midsummer Mumbai downpour, and the Indian team obliged their audience by playing Kenya off the park; captain Chhetri crowning the night with a chip that was equally memorable. For a great optimist, this was social media at its best, showing the power of the masses, almost creating an illusion of change. Between the rains, you could see sunshine.

But the thing with sunshine is that everyone wants to bask in it, while not many really contribute to the environment that allows the sun’s rays to light it up in all its purity. A bright morning is as much a chance to get yourself some light as it is for watering the plants and giving the nature some love and care. Opportunism is one of the many aching joints of humanity, and when looked through the lens of history, the reaction to India’s football captain reeks of something suspiciously similar. There is a deeper malaise eating away at Indian sport than many will care to realise.

Bizarre as the premise may sound, one must know the journey of Indian cricket to understand the plight of other sports in the country. Certain metropolitan cities like Bombay had a healthy ecosystem for cricket since the early decades of the twentieth century, but it was far from the marquee sport it is now. Greats of the game came and went, but the real big change happened after India won the World Cup in 1983. It transformed the entire cricketing ecosystem and gave hope to many kids and parents that this sport is a viable career option, and the board had built an infrastructure for it. Two years later, India would win the prestigious Benson & Hedges Cup in Australia. Success breeds trust.

In the 21st century, the Indian Premier League became a catalyst for taking the sport to a whole new level. The success of IPL has done wonderful things for Indian cricket, but the myopic vision of financial powerhouses in the country couldn’t pick up the right signals, and tried to replicate this model for other sports. In rolled Premier Hockey League, Pro Kabaddi League, Indian Super League (football) and Premier Badminton League, among a few others.

Indian football, like some of these other sports, doesn’t have the trust of the nation, and flashlights or Bollywood dance numbers can only take something so far. Putting together 200 words, or a selfie with your mates at the stadium, is a far easier task to accomplish than cleaning a sport from the ground-up. And I’m afraid that’s what India needs. It doesn’t really need old, retired European players charging minor fortunes for guest appearances, neither does it need any false sense of achievement permeating to the masses by beating Chinese Taipei. The FIFA under-17 World Cup was a magnificent opportunity for the country to take a hard look at themselves, but all they managed, was to trip themselves silly over a fortuitous goal which marked India’s first in a major world tournament.

Supporting causes in dire need of help is 21st century’s intellect-fashion, and it seems to pass people by that wearing clothes designed by Giorgio Armani won’t change an unfit body into an athletic one. Those concerned about Indian football will need to revive its core – grassroots and administrative development – to begin with. Sporting ecosystems are seldom built by celebrities in search of a photo-op, but by those who spend hours under the sun placing cones for kids to dribble around. Once the country is ready, the official poster for a football tournament won’t need to carry cricketers and filmstars to promote the game. The fans will line up for tickets much before any player has to take the digital route.

While so many others masquerade as supporters of Indian sport, Chhetri actually knows what it is like to play in front of empty stands. Like him, any athlete at the highest level is a creature of the fans; he plays and lives for a raucous ovation every time the ball hits the net or the feet cross the finish line. Give Chhetri 200 more national team caps and they won’t mean anything if there aren’t fans to clap the team on. The Indian captain’s plea was to use this tournament to re-energise a sporting culture, and one wonders if in the immediacy of social media, the core message got lost.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.