Vibrant goalposts made from plastic sticks, and a sweet scent of "masala chai" fill the maidan (field) with optimism ahead of a new day. Groups of all ages set up their disproportionate pitches, raring to commence their battles after the teams are divided. The games are underway while the noisy buses and taxi drivers break the morning's silence.
That is usually what a Sunday morning in the heart of Kolkata looks like, with football at its epicentre. Growing up in a city of great sporting culture, I became accustomed to these sights. It was something I looked forward to, meeting up with friends and simply having a good time playing the sport we love. It made me realise the value that football has on connecting us as a society, especially in India, where the people I've played with have come from a wide array of backgrounds. Through these experiences I have come across players with amazing talents, which got me wondering, why have we not reached an elite level of professional football in this country? We have the passion and desire to be the best from our ancestors, but why haven't we excelled in football, like we have in cricket?
Each sport is different and requires its own unique skill sets. However, the one thing that should be a constant is our mindset. A mindset to strive to be the best, because that is how leaders are made. The people who take that leap set an example for future generations, but when it comes to the number of examples, it is minimal, considering the active population of this country. There are so many people working in offices right now, with low paying jobs, when they had a talent that was not nurtured by either their school or coaches. It is scary to imagine that if all these people were given the right opportunity and privilege of displaying their skills, we would probably be much closer to a World Cup spot.
In India, sports in general are not prioritized as a career option, especially in Football. While it is justified that not every young Indian with a footballing dream will grow up to be the next Sunil Chhetri, there are small things that we can do at a grassroot level to help people chase these dreams. One simple solution would be better training and development facilities but that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a certain culture that needs to be inculcated. A culture where people are not afraid of pursuing their dreams in a sport like football, which often gets disregarded at the face value of cricket, which is like a religion for the common masses. When it comes to coaching, I feel we can do much better to encourage people on a daily basis. For football to be a regular profession in India, there are small things that make a big difference.Through watching matches, I have observed that the Indian Football team does not match up to the same physical toughness as perhaps the overseas players. They get pushed around easily and find it hard to compete with others. This again is rooted at a ground level, where food habits are not given special attention for people who want to pursue a career in sports. With that being said, things have improved over the years.
I remember the first season of ISL vividly. It was the first time a proper Indian football league was getting recognition, with international football legends like Roberto Carlos and Alessandro Nesta taking part. The matches were being televised on ‘star sports’ and there was a special buzz in the air. Topics of discussion between my friends changed from Barcelona and Liverpool, to FC Goa and Kerala Blasters. It showed that India had a football culture to be proud of, and that the passion for the sport was contagious. This feeling was amplified by our ability to host a successful Under-17 World Cup, which boosted the sponsorship of football in the country. I had never imagined that our young Indian players would get the opportunity to share their home ground with stars like Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden.
Although my friends and I have been fortunate enough to develop our skills to a decent level, there are others who have not even got the opportunity to display their talents in football aside from their Sunday games on the maidan. We are the sleeping giants of world football and I feel it is only a matter of time before this beast wakes up and gives rise to a new chapter of Indian football. A chapter no longer riddled with past failures and conventions but rather young talents with a burning desire to earn their hungry nation a spot in the World Cup, and it is our duty as a nation to support them.
About the author
Arjun Prakash is a football enthusiast aged 14 and studying at The Doon School. He follows Indian football passionately and wishes to represent India in the sport in the future.