Aby-product of European colonialism, football in India has come a full circle since it sprouted roots here in the late 19th century. In its early days, football was buffeted by the conflicting pulls of the colonisers -- the missionary elements wanted to use football to regenerate the moral and physical faculties of the natives, the administrators sought to draw the Indian elites closer to them, while the racists preferred to keep the game, clubs, and competitions the exclusive preserve of the whites.
Yet, the Indians persisted and prospered. In due course, they could beat their masters at their own game, the epochal moment coming when the bare-footed Mariners (Mohun Bagan) humbled East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 IFA Shield final in Kolkata.
British military teams used to dominate inter- club competitions before independence, but the likes of Bangalore Muslims, mighty Mohammedan Sporting, Aryans, Bengal Nagpur Railway and East Bengal also succeeded in turning the tables in the big Cup competitions.
In the pre-independence era, the clubs represented the heart and soul of Indian football, their wins not only energising their regional or parochial base but also the nation at large.
Post-independence, the national team kept the tricolour flying in the international arena, qualifying for four successive Olympics from 1948 to 1960.
The ‘Blue Tigers’ (a recent moniker) were among the top dogs in Asia during this period, clinching gold at the 1951 and 1962 Asiads and a bronze in 1970.
A final appearance in the 1964 Asian Cup and a semi-final appearance at the 1956 Olympics were also high points, but truth be told, those fields were limited.
The architects of those early triumphs, Syed Abdul Rahim, India’s greatest football coach, will finally get the recognition he deserves – a Bollywood film will immortalise his contribution for posterity. Thereafter, Indian football has been caught in an off-side trap as other Asian countries surged ahead.
The apathy and mismanagement of the national federation, state associations, and the premier clubs, failure to invest in youth development, infrastructure, and other facilities were to blame.
We are 18th on the AFC rankings today, but in reality, some superior teams are ranked below us after we gamed the system to overtake them.
The advent of globalisation, the economic reforms, and the National Football League in 1996 saw player earnings shoot up. Many became millionaires and crorepatis.
The coming of the Indian Super League in 2014 hiked player salaries further and brought a windfall in terms of a better class of foreign players, coaches, systems and up-gradation of infrastructure. But it came at a cost. The AIFF sold its soul and administrative control to the ISL’s powerful promoters.
Worse, it took Indian football back to its infancy when natives were kept out of top-flight competitions due to race. Today, money rules, not a meritocracy. The legacy clubs don’t count. Many have shut shop. You pay, you play in the top division! Not quite football!