History of Football in India & its Lack of Popularity When Compared to Cricket

Football started in India relatively late when compared to other sports. In contrast to cricket, which is the second largest and most widespread sportfootball was not popular in India and it was introduced 100 years later. The first cricket club founded in India was back in 1795. After cricket, which gained huge popularity in this country from the very beginning, came rugby. Additionally, the English brought to India field hockey which was soon after declared as a national sport. As early as 1895, international matches started to be played in India. 

The Beginning of Football in India 

Although it is believed that football commenced in India at the end of the 19th century, there are records that the first game was played in 1854. The clubs that were initially formed were mostly founded by the Englishmen living there. The first football competition in India was the Durand Cup in 1888. This is also the oldest competition outside Britain and was named after the founder Mortimer Durand, who, recovering from illness, realized how important sport is for maintaining good health. At the beginning, this competition was open only to military teams. Later on, civilian teams could also compete in football gamesFive years after the Durend Cup, a new competition called IFA Sild was established. That year, 1893, the Indian Football Association was founded. 

Until the Second World War, British teams were mainly winning the tournaments in all these competitions. In 1911, at a time when Indian nationalism was beginning to awaken together with the desire to free this nation from British rule, the Mohun Bagan team defeated the English team in the IFA Silda final. For a long time, this victory was considered a triumph for freedom and although football was not popular in India, this event helped to raise its popularityMohun Bagana’s main rival is East Bengal and this match is called a Calcutta derby. In 1997, the game of these teams at the Salt Lake Stadium was watched by over 131,000 spectators. These two clubs have won over 400 trophies combined. 

Did the Indian National Football Team Have an Influence on Football not Being Popular Sport in India?

To begin with, the Indian national football team participated in the 1948 Olympic Games. They were unlucky in that tournament because they were eliminated with a goal received from the French side one minute before the end. What was interesting was that in that tournament, the Indian national team played barefoot. This was India’s first international meeting since declaring independence from the UK. Two years later, the World Cup was held in Brazil. One representative from Asia was supposed to take part in this championship, and due to the withdrawal of the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma, India was supposed to participate in this championship automatically.

However, FIFA decided not to allow any national team to participate without equipment, so India decided not to participate in the tournament, taking into account that football was not quite popular in India. Unfortunately, to this day, India has never participated in the world’s biggest football festival.

First Successes for Football in India

In 1951, they won gold at the first Asian Cup in New Delhi, and a year later they were knocked out of the Olympic Games by a catastrophic 1:10 defeat to Yugoslavia. However, in 1956, the Indian national team made a great success by qualifying for the semifinals of the Olympic Games in Melbourne, where the Yugoslav national team was again fatal for them. Their last participation was in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, when they were eliminated in a group with the national teams of France, Peru and Hungary.

Sayid Abdul Rahim | The Founder of Football in India

However, in 1963, after a serious illness, Sayid Abdul Rahim, the creator of all the greatest successes of India in those years, passed away. Indian football has never recovered from this event. There has been some success in the next 15 years, but for a long time now, India has not had any notable results, as football was not popular in IndiaIn their two last appearances in Asian Cup, in the 1984 and 2011, they were unfortunate as they achieved last place in the groups. 

Is Football in India Becoming More Popular Over the Years?

Cricket is by far the most popular sport, while football remains much less popular in India. This was influenced by the impressive results of the men’s and women’s national teams of India in cricket. The official Facebook page of cricket in India has over 27 million visitors. The Indian Cricket League has 8 professional clubs and 128 registered players. It is characterized by great quality and marketing that accompanies this league. Regular television broadcasts followed by the successes of the national team made the nation crazy about this sport. Cricket enjoys a great reputation among the citizens of India.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the league commissioned over $ 1.7 billion from the sale of clubs, television and commercial rights in India. Great organization of the competition, a professional stature of the league, where the salaries of the players are extremely high, all of that has made this league extremely attractive for every player there. Football is not popular in India and lagged far behind cricket in the previous period. Poor organization, semi-professional players who were far behind technically and tactically in comparison to their cricket colleagues as well as the constant failures of the national team, made this sport far less popular and attractive when compared to cricket.

Although in most countries football is the number one sport, in India it has long fought to attain this position. Yet, things have improved a lot in recent years, so football is now enjoying increasing popularity in India. It seems to be progressing more and more from year to year and gaining in popularityUntil about 15 years ago, football was far behind not only cricket, but also behind sports such as field hockey and kabadian Indian contact team sport. 

The National Football League & The I-League

The first steps towards the popularization of football were made in 1996 when the National Football League was formed. However, even then, this league was had a poor organization level and a low quality of football. The league consisted of 12 clubs from different parts of the country. Unfortunately, there was no progress over time and the first step towards the professionalization of football failed. However, the idea of ​​professionalizing the league was not given up. That resulted with an all-around reform in 2006 and the introduction of the I-League. As the television started broadcasting matches, the league got a high value sponsor and football started to spread slowly in all parts of the country.

The league initially numbered ten teams, then 12, and soon after that 14 teams. Football has begun to threaten the popularity of long-standing cricket and you could no longer say that football is not popular in India. In order to achieve even greater popularity, it was necessary to eliminate some shortcomings related primarily to the professionalism of coaches and players. The system was organized in a way that the players and coaches actually worked in team-sponsored companies and this prevented them being full-time professionals. 

The Indian Super League

A key change in the popularization of football in India occurred with the formation of the Indian Super League. IMG (International Management Group) company, which had previously sponsored the league, has begun talks on professionalizing football and signed a contract for organizing the competition. The Indian Super League was made without an agreement with the Indian national federation and was not recognized by FIFA and the Asian Football Federation. For three years, Indian clubs were playing in a parallel system. Foreigners who started coming to India were quite attractive.

Soon, world stars like Paolo Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo, Robbie Fowler, Robert Pires played in India, and the coach in the league was the former national team player of Portugal, Fernando Kouto. The Indians wanted to make a respectable league and to change the status of football in their country. They did not spare any money to accomplish that goal. The plan was initially for the league to last seven weeks and for the matches to be played on Wednesdays and Saturdays, while there was a break in the Indian National Championship. 

Club owners were sought among famous actors, former great footballers and other celebrities. Already in the first week of the new league game, 75 million viewers watched it on TV screens. The first season was watched by 429 million people, which is a fantastic figure. And in 2014 this league was watched three times more than the World Cup in Brazil. The average attendance at the stadiums was 26 thousand spectators. 

Most Popular Indian Footballers 

  • Gostha Pal

Gostha Pal is a legendary name in Indian footballing circles. Interestingly, he used to play football barefoot before football became popular in India and was considered as one of the best defenders in India during his time. Born in 1896 in todays’ Bangladesh, hwas considered a fearless player and his defending abilities earned him the nickname ‘The Chiner Pacheer’ (The Wall of China). He is also known as the first football player ever to receive the ‘Padma Shri’ award in 1962. 

  • Peter Thangaraj

Peter Thangaraj is without any doubt the best goalkeeper in Indian history, often considered one of the best in Asia. After his debut in 1955, he was India’s first goalkeeper for about a decade. Thangaraj played for India both at the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, and represented India at 1958 Tokyo, 1962 Jakarta (where India won the gold) and 1966 Bangkok Asian Games. He was named the Best Goalkeeper of Asia in 1958. 

  • Subimal Chuni Goswamy

Subimal Chuni Goswamy was a striker known for his ball control, passing and reading of the game. He was the captain of the Indian team which won the 1962 Asian Games at Jakarta and the silver medal in Asia Cup Soccer tournament (1964) held in Israel. He was approached by Tottenham Hotspur several times after his accomplishments at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, but he eventually turned down the London club and stayed loyal to his club Mohun Bagan. 

  • Sunil Chhetri

Sunil Chhetri is currently captain of the Indian national football team and India’s most famous player. He is also the player with most performances for the national team, as well as top goal scorer of all timewith 51 goals in 91 appearances. His performance led to signing a contract with the USA’s Major League Soccer (MLS) side Kansas City Wizards in 2010, and with Sporting Portugal’s B side 2012. After two years spent at Portugal, he returned to India and led Bengaluru FC to 2 I-League titles. Chhetri has been named AIFF Player of the Year four times in 2007, 2011, 2013 and 2014. It is widely considered that Sunil Chhetri will be the greatest footballer that ever played for this country. 

Conclusion

The most important fact of all is that the popularity of football has spread in all parts of India and changed the status of football to a sport played all around the country. Even those areas that have not traditionally been tied to football have started to follow it. A large increase was recorded in Mumbai and Cenai. An excellent success in terms of popularity was made in rural areas where there were over 100 million spectators. This prompted the leaders of the I-League to seek the merger of the two competitions. Yet the Indian Super League wanted only the best I-League teams to become franchises. A strange compromise was found in the fact that the first I-League goes to the qualifications for the Asian Champions League, and the champion of the Indian Super League in the AFC Cup. Finally, FIFA also recognized this competition.   

The result of strengthening the league also brought success to the Indian national team, which passed the qualifications for the Asian Cup. The arrival of foreign coaches and players raised the quality of football in India. Due to the growing popularity of football, India organized the Under 17 World Cup in 2017, where the largest visit in the history of junior championships was recorded.