Indian Football - A case of the 'emperor's new clothes'?

As the urge for injecting "star power" into Indian football gathers further momentum, Debjit Lahiri looks into it's effectiveness in the long run...
 Debjit Lahiri
 Feature | India
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So, I wasn't quite the most popular boy back in my first year days at college but when this incredibly hot new girl in the campus managed to find a seat beside me - perhaps solely because there wasn't a spare one available inside that busy Monday afternoon cafeteria - it did nonetheless make me a talking point among my peers. And albeit being a bit awkward - the whole thing - I would probably be lying if I said I wasn't particularly enjoying the unexpected attention.

Yet a year later, I'm back to what I was before; my mates perhaps don't even remember the incident anymore and I, for one, wouldn't have been bringing this up either, had a certain press headline not caught my eye the other day.

In an exclusive interview with the Times of India, on the aftermath of actor Shah Rukh Khan's denial of having any interest to buy stakes at Dempo SC, the reigning I-League champions, Shrinivasan Dempo, the chairman of the club, stressed upon the fact that Indian football needed a new upliftment, which he believed could ONLY come from cricket and Bollywood - his exact quote being..

"We are now keen to explore other options (Apparently, the club is looking to add cricketers Gautam Gambhir and Mahendra Singh Dhoni as their brand ambassadors). We will have to wait until the end of the year to take a final call. Indian football needs fresh impetus that can only come from cricket and Bollywood."
So, let us jump to the point immediately. Well, this particular scenario somewhat draws a striking analogy with my own so called "incident". The point being to rejuvenate a seemingly 'dead product'; to bring it back among the scheme of things; one must need the aid of a separate entity; in this case 'Bollywood and cricket' , perhaps two of the most appealing "brands" in the country today.

And quite understandably there is nothing wrong in that, as it would then indeed turn some eyes towards
the game and perhaps even go on to draw a new wave of loyalties. But the question that stands - pretty dauntingly that is - Will this new-found 'aided' popularity be sustainable in the longer run?

      Will The Aided Popularity From Bollywood And Cricket Last In The Longer Run?

Well, let us now take another example - slightly different but seemingly valid in this particular context. In 2007, with the advent of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the glitz and glamour along with it, the Shah Rukh Khan owned Kolkata Knight Riders attracted a huge population of sports lovers in the city. Yet, a couple of seasons of rotten luck and the unceremonious exit of the former captain saw a massive decline in attendance at the Eden Gardens by the 4th edition of the IPL - some even citing the reason to be the rise in ticket prices (minimum of which was then costing around Rs 400). Irrespective of what the actual
reason was, the bottomline was that the glamour quotient wasn't quite working out anymore. Certainly, it wasn't enough to pull the fans like it did initially.

However, the very next season, as the team embarked on a title winning campaign, the figures improved equally drastically and by the final stages of the tournament, these very fans who complained of tickets prices worth Rs 400, were all ready to shell out as much as Rs 1,500 to see their favourite team play.

So, the morale is very simple. All the external "hoo-hah" can provide an initial jig but if there is no success story to follow up that initial jig, things would once again fall back to square one; quite in line with my very own real-life example.

And think about it - If a game so popular as cricket, could see a decline in followership just because of a couple of seasons of poor performances, how can one expect an already suffering football to gain a new impetus all-together by a mere entry of couple of stars into the game. Yes, people would try it out the first day; perhaps even the second day as well and then we return to where we started.

Now the question is what exactly do you mean by a success story? Well, it's again a collection of a lot of things - not only the performances but the general growth of the game as a whole in the country - the administrative setup; the brand of football exhibited as well as the infrastructure. One must realize football in India cannot attain a longer sustainability solely as a "creeper", feeding out of other entities and thus must and should grow as an independent product of it's own to thrive in the longer run.

And the reason why it is very important to highlight this particular issue is because one gets this notion that perhaps we are so much focused in putting up all the external ornaments right now - countless star visits another living testament to this very fact - that we are completely ignoring what needs to be done in the first place. Yes certainly think about the subsidiaries alright, but make sure you have an effective model to follow up the initial eye-catchers; which to be honest isn't quite there yet.

Perhaps some of you might remember Christian Andersen's short tale of "Emperor's new clothes." A vain Emperor who cares for nothing, hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position. Emperor cannot see the clothing himself, but pretends that he can, for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. The Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who too play along with the same pretense, until a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is actually naked.

Indian Football is some-what under the same illusion. Glitz and glamour are it's 'new clothes'. Stars would come and go; people would follow in pretense for a while - illusioned about how "big a step" we are taking - until they would finally realize we are still the same old hollow vessel from inside and move away.

Glamour would certainly give you a platform; a performing stage; but if there isn't anyone worth performing at all, then whats the use of the platform or the stage in the first place? It is the effective division of the efforts; at the proper places; that is the utmost need of the hour. Look after your ornaments; but not at the cost of neglecting you yourself!

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