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India set to rekindle its strange but fascinating love affair with the FIFA World Cup

4:02 AM GMT 06/05/2018
FIFA World Cup trophy
Despite qualification still being a distant dream, the FIFA World Cup hype continues to grow in India....

Less than six weeks remain for the World Cup in Russia to get underway as the most watched sporting event in the world returns after its four-year-long hiatus.

The month-long football extravaganza has captured the imagination of the global audience for decades and the upcoming edition in Russia promises to be no different. Back home, the 32-team tournament is generating its fair share of excitement amongst India’s population.

For a country which has never qualified for the senior World Cup, India’s love affair with the marquee event is somewhat bewildering but utterly fascinating. 

According to FIFA’s global audience report for the 2010 edition, 44.9 million Indians tuned in to watch the event on television. This figure was actually 53 per cent down on the number of Indians who had watched the 2002 edition held in South Korea and Japan.

Come 2014 in Brazil and the Indians once again embraced the World Cup with the audience reach hitting 85.7 million, up 46 per cent from the previous edition.

The excitement is limited not just to the television sets with thousands from the country travelling to the main event every World Cup. This year, Indians surprisingly featured in the top 10 nationalities to have purchased tickets in phase two of the ticket sale.

In a total of 394433 tickets sold during the phase, Indians accounted for 4,509 of them to feature in the top 10 nationalities outside the Russians who accounted for more than 50 per cent of the total sale. Amongst fans of countries whose teams did not qualify for the main event, only those of USA and China bought more tickets than the Indians.

When the first batch of last-minute tickets went on sale in April, the trend continued with Indians once again finding themselves amongst the top 10 overseas buyers with 1,905 tickets out of a combined 87,902 sold. Again, it was only USA and China that surpassed the Indians when it came to fans of non-qualified nations.

The USA are not featuring in the tournament for the first time since 1986 but it is fair to say that both China and India have less than stellar histories when it comes to football. While India are yet to dip their toes in the main stream, the Chinese did manage to secure a historic qualification in 2002.

While cricket continues to dominate India’s sporting sphere, football has to compete against countless Olympic sports in neighbouring China. Yet in both countries, there exists a niche passionate base for the world’s most popular sport.

In India’s case, this niche following has been burgeoning ever since the arrival of the Premier League on cable television. As the other European leagues soon followed the Premier League’s cue, the numbers have only continued to grow exponentially.

Initially, these numbers were restricted to the metropolitan cities to families with access to cable connections but the growth has now spread over to Tier 2 and 3 cities too as the Indian GDP continues to grow.

For this population, watching the World Cup in the summer has come as a natural extension of their European club loyalties. This section had largely shunned the domestic leagues after getting accustomed to the ‘finer’ European football with a clear divergence emerging between them and followers of domestic Indian football. Of late though, especially with the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014, there seems to be a convergence of followers for the Indian and European game. Many fans now back a local team in addition to their foreign contemporaries.

With the World Cup being billed as the pinnacle of the sport, it is only natural for followers of all kinds of football in India to flock towards it upon its arrival once every four summers.

That is not to say that the global event does not generate any buzz amongst the non-football following population in the country. With its perfect timing with regards to the summer holidays, the World Cup remains a hit in urban households as for once, India’s FIFA ranking becomes a hot subject of discussion during family dinners.

Having watched the World Cup from the outside for long, India made a small inroad in that aspect when it hosted the U17 summit in October last year. 47 million viewers in the country watched the Indian colts battle it out with the very best of world youth football. For a U17 level competition, those numbers are excellent.

There is no doubt that the figures will be handsomely surpassed when the senior World Cup starts this June as India rekindles its love affair with the event. The wait for the country’s qualification shows no signs of ending anywhere in the near future but the World Cup still remains king in the hearts of plenty.