What is India’s ranking in the FIFA world rankings? 106. Not even in the top 100. But what would India’s ranking be when it comes not to playing but watching football? Unfortunately, there are no FIFA or any other rankings available.
But I would wager that it would be pretty high. What is the conclusion? It can be summed up in the famous statement that India is a football watching, rather than football playing, nation.
I think this nostrum ranks just below another famous one, this time about cricket, tracable to Ashis Nandy, who wrote in The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games (1989): “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.”
Why is the difference between watching and playing important? More specifically, watching without playing? Because just as reading is more important than writing when it comes to great literary nations, watching is more important for modern sport than playing.
It means a passion for sport, for sportsmanship even, which even if vicarious should eventually translate into playing. It is inevitable, when it comes to India, that with time and training, we will go up the world rankings. But till that happens, India remains one of the great football watching countries of the world.
Certainly, when it comes to the recently concluded World Cup. When the tournament began in Qatar on November 20th, I was invited to write about it. I respectfully declined, saying that I was much of a football follower. But as the time progressed, with one exciting game after another, I found myself irresistibly drawn into the contest.
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No matter that many of the matches took place at unearthly times, late into the night. Seeing other groggy and goggle-eyed football fans, whether family or friends, the following day only meant that you were not the only one afflicted by football fever.
The greatest World Cup
Without question, this was one of the greatest World Cups in living memory, with a photo finish in the end. No one could have scripted a better match. What the World Cup has proved is that the Middle East has emerged as a top sporting destination not only for cricket, but also for football.
Coming to the final itself, it was an incredible game, with the two captains, the legendary Lionel Messi of Argentina and the Kylian Mbappé of France leading from the front. Both excellent dribblers and dodgers, they not only inspired their teams into once-in-a-lifetime brilliance, but themselves scored to equalise at 3-3 before the inevitable penalty shootout. In the end, the better team, evidently, won.
Messi had support from excellent forwards like Julián Álvarez and Enzo Fernández, not to speak of midfielders like Alexis Mac Allister and Ángel Di María.
France, on the other hand, could have done with more support for Mbappé ended up getting. Football, like practically any other sport, shows that it is teamwork that triumphs in the end, not only individual genius. Although the world usually sets a greater score by the latter.
This is where the unrivalled and universally acknowledged hero of this World Cup, Leo Messi, comes in. In more ways than one, he represents the hope, grit, goodness, talent, and true greatness which makes football like no other sport.
A dream run, triumphant end, and unusual start as the sporting version of the Cinderella myth, the Messi story has everything that legends are made of. Include his two sons hugging him after his victory. Messi is the wholesome, down-to-earth virtuoso. Like India’s Sachin Tendulkar, when it comes to cricket.
The World Cup is over
Let us wake up and smell the coffee! Surely 1.4 billion people can produce great players if only a proper system of talent scouting, encouragement, training, and incentives for sporting excellence is put into place.
For that to happen, Indian football fans need to remember that it is not merely watching the World Cup that makes one a great sporting nation.
Argentina’s or Brazil’s footballers are as popular in India as anywhere else in the world. But where are local players of that stature?
The country’s sporting authorities need to understand that only watching a game is not enough. Playing it and playing it well are much more important, if it is football glory that we aspire to. This has already happened in cricket.
Will it be football’s turn next? If not for 2026, at least for 2030?