FIFA Comes To India

India previously has had played host to multilateral sporting events. We have hosted the Asian Games twice. The inaugural edition in 1951 and the 9th edition in 1982, both in New Delhi. In 2010, India also hosted the 19th Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. But what’s happening now is a big leap ahead from it.

Come the 6th of October 2017, India will be hosting its first ever truly global sporting event after Independence. This is a time for many firsts. For the first time India will be hosting the FIFA WC. Yes, it is not the main event. It is the U-17 FIFA WC. But it will be the first time ever an Indian football team will take part in the FIFA WC. Definitely a moment to cherish!

In trivia, we often read that the Indian football team in 1950 was invited to play in the FIFA WC but at the eleventh hour they were denied permission to play as they did not have shoes. Many of us might have read this at the back of a Classmate notebook. If we were so good at the game why didn’t we go on to play at the World Cups later in the decade ? What is India’s football story ? And what is the importance of U-17 FIFA WC to the sport in India?

Football in India has a fascinating history. It can be broadly divided into 3 phases. The 1950’s and the early years of the 1960’s are described as ‘the golden phase’ of Indian football. The next three decades from 1970-2000 saw the steady decline of the sport and it successes. A phase when Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were the only known football teams in the country. The football scene in the country is now seeing a resurgence with the inclusion of players like Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri into the national team.

To put things in perspective let us begin with the 50’s era first. Dispelling the fact from myth let us put to rest the fable of the not having footwear to play in the 1950 FIFA WC. India qualified to play in the 1950 World Cup as the remaining teams withdrew from the qualifying process. Later, India too turned down the opportunity of playing in the event citing a host of reasons; from paucity of funds to giving priority to the Olympics over the World Cup.

Now let us check out the silverware in the cabinet of the team. At its zenith any team tries to lay its hands on as many trophies as possible. Though the Indian football team never managed to again qualify for the FIFA WC it won many laurels.

  • In March 1951, India won its first major tournament. India won the gold medal in the inaugural edition of the Asian Games beating Iran 1-0.
  • In the same period India participated in various tournaments such as Colombo Cup which they won three times from 1953 to 1955.
  • India produced its best performance in a global competitive event at the 1956 Summer Olympics.
  • India finished 4th in the 1956 Summer Olympics losing the bronze medal match 3-0 to Bulgaria.
Indian Football Team of the 1950’s. The Golden Era

The next couple of years produced a mixed bag of results.This included a 2nd gold at the Asian Games in 1962. But Indian football’s best performance till date was produced by this team at the AFC Asian Cup in 1964 where they finished runners up to hosts Israel.

And since the 1970’s the football scenario had taken a down turn. We can debate and dissect the reasons for decline in football standards over the decades but there is no one particular area to pin the blame on. The rot in the system continued systematically almost until the turn of the century when India won the SAFF Championship in 1997 and 1999.

In the recent past the resurgence of Indian football has been heralded by young turks such as Baichung Bhutia and more recently Sunil Chhetri. The recent rise of the sport in the country has had its fair share of difficulties along the road. A few smooth stretches too have adorned this path.

  • In the Afro-Asian Games hosted in 2003, India finished runners up in the sport of football; losing to Uzbekistan 1-0.
  • India won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 defeating Tajikistan 4-1 and qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup after a gap of 27 years.
  • More recently earlier this year India qualified till the 2nd round of World Cup qualifiers where they eventually lost steam.
Indian football team
Indian Football Team after winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup

These performances have given hope of a bright future for football in India. Amidst all this the 2017 U-17 FIFA WC arrived in India with much fanfare. The event is being touted as a miracle which will transform the face of football in India. I too am optimistic about the opportunity and the transformation the sport will see in India but am not sure of a miraculous turn around because of the event.

Will there be more interest in the sport after the event ? Yes.

Will there be improvement in the infrastructure for football ? Yes.

Will it change the fortunes of the sport overnight in India ? I am a bit skeptical.


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