“Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached” – Swami Vivekananda

Over 2 billion people watched the last FIFA World Cup Game Live – that is the popularity of the sport, also known as ‘The Beautiful Game’. It connects people across ages, races, regions and languages, is played by almost all countries in the world and enjoys the highest popularity of all. Football’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) founded 115 years ago in 1904, counts a massive 211 countries as its members, more than the number of members in the International Olympic Council, or even the United Nations. It is interesting to understand why this game is so important for most of the countries and how it can have a huge positive impact on India, especially on its youth.

In 2018, Nielsen reported that from 2013 to 2017, football followers in India grew from 30% to 45%. This is a huge jump, rarely seen in any market or sport. The major reason behind such instant growth in football’s fan following is probably the new football league and its commercialisation. Indian Super League started in the year 2014 and since then, it has scripted a new history for Indian football. Considering that India has a population of around 1.3 billion, 45% of it being football fans ideally points towards a whopping 600 million fan base. However, the Nielsen report suggests the number to be somewhere around 135 million as only a small portion of the urban population, and not rural, was considered for their study. Yet, the sheer number of fans makes this one of the largest markets in the world and the rapid growth rate is unprecedented.

As per a KPMG report, football captures the 3rd spot with 8% market share in the Indian sports goods manufacturing market. In fact, India is a major manufacturer and supplier of professional quality footballs used in many professional football leagues across the globe. The states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are especially known for their sports goods manufacturing centres. Jalandhar has some of the largest football manufacturing centres in India from where the products are shipped to major leagues and tournament including the FIFA World Cup. Factories in Jalandhar made footballs for practice matches of FIFA World Cups 2010 and 2014. Moreover, footballing greats such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. regularly play with footballs of Indian make.

The fan following that football has in India goes mostly unnoticed by the media but not by FIFA. Thierry Weil, Director of Marketing Division, FIFA, said in an interview to The Hindu that India is a sleeping giant of global football and also one of the largest markets with huge potential. One of the major reasons behind not getting ample coverage by the media is its interest in the game of cricket and its aim to cover as much cricket as possible. However, FIFA has a fair idea of the huge fan base of global and local football in India, and it has taken significant steps to promote football further in the country. 

The first time Lionel Messi, one of the all-time greats to have graced the game, came to the Indian city of Kolkata, the crowds overwhelmed not just the Argentinian National Team but FIFA itself.

FIFA encouraged India to host the Under-17 World Cup, an event it believed would greatly enhance the sport’s popularity, especially among Indian teens. Rightly so, a record number of people showed up for the event and cheered for the Indian team as well. The Indian junior team performed extremely well, and it marked a new beginning for Indian football. The major benefit of the Under-17 World Cup was that all the football stadiums that hosted the matches were renovated to meet FIFA’s global standards, and these have continued to benefit Indian football players even after the tournament.

The new leagues that have started in India for various sports have brought in a local essence that was crucial for the growth of the industry as a whole; hence the rewards in terms of viewership and sponsorships. The Indian Super League (ISL) has benefitted Indian football in a similar manner. Modern designing, live streaming on the Internet and featuring global superstars of football, ISL has not only reached out to a huge number of viewers but also made the Indian sports fraternity take notice of it.

According to Forbes, ISL became the 5th largest football league in the world after the Bundesliga, EPL, La Liga and Serie A due to its average attendance soaring over 25,000. ISL is ahead of the USA’s popular MLS, French Ligue 1 and various other popular leagues and this is a proud moment for Indian Football players and fans alike.

The stadiums that ran vacant in the previous forms of football leagues held in India no longer do so; the scenario has completely changed with ISL. This came as a shock to global viewers, as India was never highlighted on the global football map. The future of Indian football looks bright with the success of ISL. The League has also made playing football financially lucrative; this was only a dream in the past. Unlike cricket, most other sports lack people’s interest and hence attract very less amount of sponsorship. However, ISL helped attract millions of viewers to its live matches and enticed companies to pour in their money into the game.

Humans have been involved in numerous kinds of entertainment since time immemorial and sports is one of them. Watching people compete in a friendly, peaceful manner is a major source of entertainment to millions across the globe. Following world football can give Indian fans a better view of the world. Getting to know foreign players who come to India to play in ISL or similar leagues can help fans gain an insight into their countries and cultures. Sports have always been a tool for Track-3 diplomacy worldwide. Sporting competitions are a great platform for countries to showcase their strengths instead of actually going to war. India could benefit from promoting its diplomacy by investing in football. India would also be able to move towards becoming a global superpower, by demonstrating not only hard power but also soft power in the form of sports, especially football.

Soumya De

Soumya De is an IR professional and a polyglot with a keen interest and experience in technology, international trade & business, environment, geography, languages, cultures and cuisines.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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