For as long as I can remember, I have been a football fan. Curiously for someone who has given most major sports a shot, it is a game I have only started playing in recent years. But, I have been following football for almost 30 years, having been introduced to John Barnes and Liverpool FC as a seven year old.
I got the opportunity to meet Barnes at a recent Premier League fan event in Bengaluru, and it was a total fanboy moment, if there ever was one. The event attracted nearly 30,000 people over a weekend and was broadcasted across the world.
Three days later, the city’s own Bengaluru FC took on Tajik league champions, FC Istiklol, with the winners booking a place in the final of the AFC Cup. The match was not covered on Indian television and attendance was at less than half the numbers seen at the Premier League event.
And there in lies the imperfect dichotomy that exists in Indian football. The Premier League and other European leagues have brought world class football to our shores since 2001 and this has helped increase the footprint of the game beyond the traditional pockets of Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab. But has this come at the expense of the national team and the I-League, until recently, India’s premier league competition?
The Indian Super League (ISL) and the Under 17 FIFA World Cup have seen impressive attendance figures but away from the attention thrust on them during the duration of these events, not much seems to have changed on the ground. Beyond the die-hards, very few people retain interest in the players or the teams. In this cricket obsessed country, not enough people play the game and those who do follow the game are likelier to reel out the names of the entire Manchester United squad than name three players from the Blue Tigers, the Indian national team.
It is not all doom and gloom though. While not quite reminiscent of the glorious 1950s and early 60s, Indian football is enjoying a bit of a revival in recent years. A FIFA ranking of 105 is probably not an accurate indicator of where the national team is, and that is in the third tier of Asian football, but people in the right places are making the right noises about the growth of the game in the country. Whether this will translate into more things tangible, for example, a place in the final round of Asian qualification for the World Cup, only time will tell.
A goalkeeper in flight is one of the more beautiful images in football. When he leaps off his feet and strains every sinew of his body to follow the trajectory of the ball, there are only two possible outcomes. He is either going to save or concede a goal, but is leaving nothing on the table with his effort. Either way, it is a spectacle for all involved and the quality of the game is enhanced. Flying Goalie has been created by invoking that spirit.
How does a populace decide that the Indian game is worth following? Is it when the quality is comparable to what is already available around the world? Or is it when the results make the national team a more enticing prospect? It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. While the onus is on the administrators, players and coaches to take Indian football forward, sustained attention from the media and fans can help accelerate that process.
Towards that end, this website will focus on bringing you content that makes following Indian football a fruitful and fulfilling proposition. Fulfilling? A first ever appearance at a FIFA World Cup. That is the dream. Like that goalkeeper taking flight, I do not know if we will get there, but on our part, we will not be leaving anything on the field.