MUMBAI: In India, European football is hugely popular. While local teams play in almost deserted stadiums, audiences crowd around televisions to follow the latest matches of the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, or the pan-European UEFA Champions League.
The latest goals, controversies and transfers in Europe are the subject of passionate debate and discussion on the streets of India. By contrast, the local leagues attract hardly any interest. This is true in many Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. But we try to explore what lies behind this discrepancy in India.
It wasn’t always thus though – for Indian club football’s heyday came in the 1970s and 1980s when vast crowds, sometimes 100000 strong, regularly flocked to watch the leading Indian club competitions such as IFA Shield, Durand Cup and DCM Trophy.
By the latter part of 1990s, however, the state of Indian club competitions had become a major worry, while tournaments were blighted by poor organisation and chronic infrastructure, at the same time the European leagues has become accessible and affordable to many, especially those living in urban areas.
Indian football fans feasted upon the chance to watch legendary clubs like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Manchester United on a regular basis, and the realization must have dawned that the local games they had been watching for years was a sub-standard product to the one found in countries like England, Spain and Germany.
I only watch international league, I don’t enjoy the kind of play of local matches, that is the fact. It is not entertaining at all, maybe that is why people don’t watch them frequently – said an Kolkata-based 24-year-old medical student Rahul Dasgupta.
Even the Indian national team also got affected by this phenomenon despite producing consistent results for last two years. In fact, the attendance became so insignificant for India’s Intercontinental Cup opener against Chinese Taipei in Mumbai earlier this month, skipper Sunil Chhetri had to come out in public and literally begged fans to come and watch their own country play. It really very disheartening to see him like that.
However, there has been a reversal in the declining attendances when the Indian Super League was launched in 2014. In it’s inaugural season the average ISL game drew 25371 fans, highest in Asia. However, in the most recent season there has been a significant decline in attendance which has fallen from 25371 to 15047. At the same time, I-League saw a sharp 58% increase in in-stadia attendance. The average attendance from 2016/17 season’s 6500 per match rose to 10210 in 2017/18.
Since it’s inception ISL teams tends to field big-name marquee players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, David Trezeguet, Marco Materazzi, Roberto Carlos, Florent Malouda, Diego Forlan, Heldar Postiga, Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov.
Nonetheless, fans has made it clear that they want to see the drama and the nail biting finishes, not some old veterans who are looking for a last payday.
To conclude this we would like to mention that although local Indian football has lost it’s charm and people who are supporting other countries during World Cup would hardly worry about supporting India in Asia Cup, but there is still places like Kolkata and Kochi where people are more invested in Indian football rather than European leagues.
Leagues have to become businesses in order to succeed, but very few have grasped this yet. If the local leagues are run properly and it’s an interesting standard, the experience is positive and the mainstream media is supportive, there is no reason why the Indian leagues should not regain it’s lost ground.