BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)
On Saturday morning, Indian football made headlines in the mainstream media after a long time, as parallels were drawn with Leicester City after Aizawl FC’s 1-0 win against Mohun Bagan gave the Reds a definitive edge in the title run.
The English newspapers gave the Mizo outfit coverage commensurate with their achievement. The Times of India, which for decades has been boisterous in giving domestic football more space than it actually deserves, carried the story in the first page with it being the lead story in some editions. The best headline – ‘And the mountains echoed’ – was used by Indian Express while Hindustan Times, The Hindu and New Indian Express all gave it significant importance even though Chennaiyin FC co-owner Mahendra Singh Dhoni commanded more attention in all sports pages. The Bengali newspapers led the way though, with many of them (including Sangbad Pratidin, a newspaper owned by the Basu family that runs the Green and Maroons) devoting two entire pages to the feisty 90 minutes.
The story, though, was entirely different in the Hindi media with Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala and Hindusta - three of the top five newspapers of the country in terms of circulation- providing scanty details of the game. Dainik Bhaskar, the most circulated paper of the country, didn’t write a single line about the tie, while it covered Novak Djokovic’s injury and Rohan Bopanna’s victory. The other three organizations mentioned above carried a very short report, highlighting the name of the scorer and the details of the title run-in.
This minimal coverage of the biggest match of the season and of the unlikeliest success story of the decade once again showed how difficult it has been for Indian football to find a foothold in the Hindi heartland of the country. With the game being restricted to a few hubs, domestic football finds almost zero attention in some of the most populous states of the country.
The lack of a footballing culture, which leads to the absence of local heroes add to the misery. Among the players currently plying their trade in top-flight Indian football, only Nishu Kumar and Ravi Kumar hail from the Hindi-speaking belt comprising of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand.
While everyone associated with local football identifies it as one of the biggest problems plaguing Indian football’s growth, there has not been any significant development on this front. Delhi Dynamos, leveraging their demographic advantage, tried to make inroads in Uttar Pradesh, with former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav unveiling their club jersey. As it stands, while they scored some brownie points for ingenuity, it didn’t transform to any tangible difference in the club’s following.
This numbers indicate that this alienation of football among a large portion of the youth will only increase with time. In this century, 60% of the population increase in the country would come from the four states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan while only 22% would come from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, according to a 2003 study published in The Economic and Political Weekly (pdf available here). The composition of the groups here is interesting: none among the first set of states have any presence in professional football circuit, while four of the five states in the second set have at least one team that is popular among local fans.
The easiest way out of this would be to get new teams from these regions, which is already part of AIFF’s league structure reform plans. However, that alone will not do the trick and not that it is absolutely necessary also. For example, the whole belt has a single representative in Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League (IPL), but the competition is incredibly popular in the region.
With cricket strengthening its hold in those pockets further, it’s high time the governing body takes some steps to address this issue. Attention and appreciation from the English newspapers and digital media is a good starting point, but that alone can’t achieve the scale that the Hindi can bring to the fold.