Most Indians are traditionally inclined towards the game of cricket. And as I was growing up, I was exposed to generous helpings of that passion, primarily through Baba who is a cricket fan. However, all through my childhood, I’d become used to seeing our national side lose matches time and again. I remember I was watching a match with Baba when our team was in the doldrums. I asked him why we were losing, and Baba replied nonchalantly, “India plays to lose”. I think he was actually telling me, “Get used to this, son”. Baba has always been a true fan. He’d watch a match, regardless of who was winning (and he still does), while I sulked as our batsmen were dismissed one after the another, and our bowlers had their deliveries dispatched to the boundary with ease.
I think it was this disappointment that made me start watching football (or soccer, as it might be called). India is nowhere on the horizon when it comes to the world’s favourite sport, but ESPN and Star Sports have always been dishing out the English Premier League for Indian audiences, and they managed to sway me away from cricket. Leeds United was the first team I supported (this was a time when I was still a predominantly cricket fan), but then came Leeds’ economic failure, and the white was replaced with the red, that of Manchester United. Those were the days of David Beckham, Roy Keane, and Ruud van Nistelrooy. And yes, it was a welcome relief from watching India play cricket, as United won most of the time. And quite naturally, like most United fans, I developed a gradual dislike for Arsenal. On the international stage, though, it was Brazil all the way for me. In a way, it was the Bong football gene that finally came to prominence.
Today, I support quite a few teams. Though I’m still faithful to the Red Devils, I have developed a liking for Barcelona, and I still follow a bit of Leeds football. On the international level, it’s Brazil along with Spain, The Netherlands, and Portugal. Though I don’t have direct access to TV in the University (people are always haggling over the remote in the hostel common rooms), I keep tabs on all happenings through the internet.
These days, however, the Indian cricket team is having an unprecedented upswing of fortunes. They’re a good mix of young and experienced players, they’re playing really well, and they’re winning. That is a welcome respite for us, who’ve always seen things go in a different direction. But I now love football nevertheless. And I’m not an exception. Many of my friends have been bitten by the football bug too, and we even have harmonious rivalries between fans of rival EPL teams (Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal).
This was not my story. It is the story of a change in tastes of the new generation in India. There is a healthy fan base for soccer in India now, which is evident from the number of Indians in support communities of football clubs (especially EPL clubs) on networking sites. However, despite the fan base, Indian soccer is worse off than ever. I don’t even know how deep down our national soccer team is ranked. During my lifetime, India has never made it to the World Cup. Pity, it loses to even the smallest of countries (Singapore, for example). The reason? All the money is in cricket, and so is all the interest. And I’m sorry, but it is the earlier generations which must take the blame for completely alienating football from India. Today, with increased interest in the game, all we can hope for is that this will start a new revolution in Indian football. I sincerely hope I see India shine on the world football stage during my lifetime.
I hope, that is.