Why is India so terrible at football? The question crops up every time a World Cup comes around and we find ourselves farther from the main draw than Christiano Ronaldo is from humility and self-deprecation. There are two conventional answers to the question: one, that Indians are physically ill-equipped for the rigours of the game; two, that we ignore football in our love of cricket.
Ian Jack took the second tack in a Telegraph article last week, producing three pieces of evidence to back his claim that football is about more than muscles and eggs: A) Indians play cricket well; B) we once played hockey well; and C) Scotland beat England regularly in football's early days, despite the English being bigger and better fed.
Let me address these points one by one. A) While we play cricket well, we have never been world beaters in the manner of the West Indian teams of the 1970s and 80s, or the Australians of the late 1990s and much of the noughties. Even our best teams have never filled the important slot of the tearaway fast bowler, the spearhead who is not only capable of running through the opposition, but gains wickets for his bowling partner because batsmen relax at the other end, and make mistakes as a result. Express pace bowling is the only aspect of cricket that demands raw power, a level of physical ability on par with top athletes in demanding sports like football. The fact that no Indian in history has consistently been able to bowl at over 150 kilometers per hour despite all the encouragement the sport receives points to serious metabolic deficiencies in the population.
B) Our best hockey days were when India was undivided. After Partition, Pakistan soon outpaced us. The introduction of Astroturf and the long passing game led to India's downfall precisely because of the greater athleticism and stamina required by the new style.
C) Just as India's field hockey success in 1928 is irrelevant to a consideration of our standing today, the football game Ian Jack cites, a 1928 classic at Wembley when a Scottish team led by short forwards outclassed an England outfit packed with big defenders, tells us little about how a similar showdown would play out today. The game has changed utterly in the intervening decades. Besides, football has never been about height. Tallness provides an advantage in the air, but the low centre of gravity of short people endows them with better balance. List the best players in any given era and you will find a few short men, from Maradona and Roberto Carlos to Lionel Messi and the pocket dynamos who power Barcelona and Spain, Iniesta and Xavi. Football is primarily about short, sharp bursts of pace. Although a player might cover 8 to 10 kilometers in the course of a 90 minute match, he will do so in a series of sprints rather than one long, even-paced run. Sprinting and long-distance running use two different sets of muscle fibres, known as fast twitch and slow twitch respectively. Fast twitch fibers work largely through anaerobic means and fatigue quickly, whereas slow twitch fibres use oxygen to produce energy and can work for hours without exhaustion setting in.
The difference between these two kinds of muscle corresponds interestingly with a division in the African continent, and provides an insight into national success and failure in football. Any sports enthusiast will know that virtually all world records in track events are held by athletes from Africa, or of African ancestry. As Jon Entine pointed out in his book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, all short-distance records are in the name of athletes of West African ancestry (that's where most of the slaves taken to the Americas originated), while long-distance running is dominated by East Africans, particularly Kenyans and Ethiopians. Consider now, the map of countries that made it to the final 32 at the World Cup. There was one north African nation, Algeria, and one from the south, the host country. The other four - Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon - lie in close proximity to each other in West Africa. It is this region that provides most of the African talent so visible in European clubs, as also a number of top players in the Indian professional league. East Africa, on the other hand, while a dominant force in long-distance running, lags far behind the west in football. West African nations like Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso, apart from the four that qualified for the World Cup, all have FIFA ranks higher than Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. This disjuncture cannot be explained by cultural factors, since football is by far the most popular sport in countries like Kenya. Nor can advanced facilities, affluence or higher populations explain the gap. I mean, Mali is hardly an exemplar of good governance and general welfare, is it? The FIFA rankings of Kenya (113) and Ethiopia (123), while pretty low, are nevertheless better than India's dreadful 133rd. We, it appears, have a shortage of fast twitch as well as slow twitch muscle fibre.
A few years ago, before I changed to a direct-to-home provider, my cable operator began beaming a Japanese channel that had sumo on its programming list. I grew fascinated with the sport, to the point that I could identify the top wrestlers, their ranks and their favourite plays. The highest rank in sumo is yokozuna. All the yokozuna before the 1990s were Japanese natives, as befitted the national sport. A relaxation of rules during the early days of globalisation saw a few Pacific Islanders reach the top echelons. Akebono, formerly Chad Rowan of Hawaii, became the first foreign born yokozuna. The incursion of foreign-born talent led to a period of heightened popularity, as Akebono and his fellow American Musashimaru fought the local favourite yokozuna, Takanohana and Wakanohana. In the succeeding decade, however, a Mongolian named Asashoryu became the sole yokozuna, dominating so completely that there was no room for a local champion to emerge. When a rival did appear, it was another Mongolian, Hakuho, who joined Asashoryu in the top rank in 2007.
Asashoryu, unlike the Hawaiian giants of the 1990s, did not have the advantage of size over Japanese wrestlers. In fact, he was relatively small for a sumo champ. What he possessed was explosive pace that could be used to create unstoppable momentum. For many Japanese, the absence of a native grand champion was a national tragedy. They grumbled that the nation had become soft as it grew rich, and that youngsters were no longer keen to undergo the hardship of sumo training.
While there is no doubt some truth in this analysis, it fails to account for the fact that many of the most driven sportsmen of our times - Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher and Roger Federer - came from well-to-do families. I have never seen evidence of a straightforward link between poverty, ambition and willingness to make sacrifices. If two wrestlers from a nation of less than 3 million people dominate sumo today, who is to say the same would not have been the case had sumo allowed in foreigners freely in the past? It might well be that Mongolian bodies are better adapted to sumo than those of the people who invented the sport. Mongolia certainly has a spectacular record in international wrestling competitions to back up such a claim. Asashoryu's father, in fact, won a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Olympics.
I'm not arguing that nature is all that counts in sport. Nothing in the past record of Slovenes or Uruguayans is indicative of special physiological gifts; yet these countries, whose populations more or less match that of Mongolia, managed to qualify for the World Cup, with Uruguay finishing a creditable fourth. India's sheer numerical strength should ensure a modicum of success even in football, once we get our act together in talent scouting and setting up training facilities. However, it is misguided to suggest, as Ian Jack appears to do, that genetics and diet play a negligible role in sporting attainment.
Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.