When I woke up in the morning today, the first news that flashed on my notification screen was Anju Bobby George, one of the most decorated athletes in the country, complaining about the lack of practice facilities for the athletes preparing for the Commonwealth Games ahead of the Federation Cup.
“They (ISL) have a lot of money. Why don’t they set up their own facilities? If they take over our stadiums, where will our athletes go?” George was quoted as saying by PTI and I couldn’t agree more.
Since the day IMG, Reliance Industries, and Star Sports joined hands to declare what they called “a revolution in Indian football”, the beautiful game has definitely got some mileage in the country. While the love for I-League was always there in Kolkata due to the pride factor and in the North-Eastern belt due to the perennial interest in the sport there, it couldn’t attract any new audiences since the day European football, especially the Premier League, started attracting television audiences in the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
However, more than the lack of quality and lack of inspiration, when it comes to participation on the global stage, the paradox of the Indian football has a much more deep-rooted problem. The lack of organisation, budget, youth development, talent identification, infrastructure, and the lack of proper structure played a big part of Indian football’s downfall and the country’s poor standing even at the Asian level restricted Indian football from shining.
But, the birth of the ISL has given a slender hope to the game in the cricket-mad nation and fans also welcomed it with open arms and thronged the stadiums day in and day out. While West Block Blues make their presence felt in all throughout the country during Bengaluru FC matches, Kerala Blasters’ fan base Manjappada fan club didn’t leave a stone unturned to support their team. The presence of Bollywood celebrities like Ranbir Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham, Arjun Kapoor, and Jacqueline Fernandez gave another reason for football fans to have a good evening at the stadium. But the underlying fact was that the sport got the patronage and that was a welcome narrative.
While the development of the game is fine, the problem arises when the monetary aspects of the sports take the centre-stage and that pushes other sports to a corner. Football, as popular as it may be, never guarantees a medal at the international stage, but athletics does. And when George pointed it out, it needs to be taken seriously.
“I have tried my best to use my proximity to the ministry as an observer but it is still happening. We have good tracks at these stadiums but athletes are not even allowed to practise there. What is the point in having these facilities if our athletes can’t use it?”
While IMG has been spending crores of money on promoting the game and can afford to get the Bollywood actors performing a pole dance for the advertisement campaigns, it reflects poorly on their part for using athletics stadium for their games for a long period as it is now. While there is no doubt in the fact that it is almost impossible for them to build stadiums of their own for a league, it wouldn’t have been any problem had the tournament gone on for a month or two. But the ISL is a long tournament and generally goes on for 4-5 months, which forces the athletes to practice on grass stadiums instead of soft turfs. Sample this. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai have been used for athletes for ages now, but after the ISL, it has become a default stadium for the football matches.
Within the crisis of sorts, the Federation Cup athletics tournament, which was scheduled to be held at the Jawaharlal Stadium in New Delhi, shifting to Patiala was the last thing that the sport that promises medals at the events like Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships, would have imagined.
Kolkata Knight Riders’ former team director Joy Bhattacharjya, summed it up beautifully while writing for Economic Times, “We all have had countless debates about why India is not a sporting country, and why we do not punch anywhere close to our weight in winning international events. And the truth is, we just have no respect for sportspersons.”
But blaming ISL and AIFF for the mess-up is actually wrong. The Athletics Federation of India is providing the stadiums to the clubs for gaining monetary benefit out of it, but they do so without having an alternate plan in place. This can easily be compared to the Indian boxing. Once it started building the base to become a lucrative and one of the premier sports in the country through the 2000s, most so in Haryana, the sport grew manifold. The state provided all sorts of rewards - monetary and otherwise - and job security to the boxers with the primary idea being that the athletes wouldn’t have to be worried about anything. And the result could be understandable from the fact that in the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games - in which India finished second - nearly 40% of India’s athletes, were from Haryana.
How could they do it? The basic reason being, the players had the benefit of all the infrastructure and didn’t have to worry about anything but performing.
For a country that roots for individual brilliance at the grandest stage of the game, either the government has failed to provide infrastructure for the sportsperson or the latter have failed to use the facilities well. Truth be told, the government needs to make wholesome changes to the way sports is perceived and organized in the country. Unless there