Indian football fans have bagged the third position among unqualified nations for the number of stadium seats booked (~18,000) at the FIFA World Cup 2018 behind the US (~89,000) and China (~40,000). Apart from boosting the Russian economy temporarily and sending out two school children to present the ball at Moscow as the official match ball carriers, India has no other participatory presence at the tournament – no team, no referees, no linesmen and no kit supplier. This year’s World Cup is estimated to be a $1.5-billion spectacle with prime sponsors being Adidas, Coca-Cola and the Wanda Group.
Apart from the sole instance in 1950, where India made the cut due to the non-participation of countries such as Scotland, France and Czechoslovakia, India has never come close to clearing the qualifiers. Even back then, when no Asian country participated in the aftermath of World War II, the Indian team did not turn up at the tournament. Legend has it that it was because the team wanted to play barefoot. The alternative theory points to the lengthy travel time. Whatever the reason, India has historically been a cricket-worshipping nation with a largely apathetic audience when it comes to football. Traditionally, football fanatics have been concentrated in Kerala, Goa, West Bengal and the North East.
The All India Football Federation has been trying to popularise the sport in the country. Replicating the concept of Indian Premier League, it has come up with the Indian Super League (ISL), where Indian footballers get to rub shoulders with their foreign counterparts. Several sportsmen and celebrities hold stakes in ISL teams and use their media clout to create a buzz around the matches. Still, the captain of the Indian football team, Sunil Chhetri, had to make a special appeal on Twitter to fill the stadium and support the team during the Intercontinental Cup.
Given that there is no ardent following for the sport, the limited craze that football generates among Indians is reserved for the EPL, UEFA and the World Cup broadcasts. Youngsters in metros discuss with bated breath the greatness and shortcomings of Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Otherwise, the expression of Indian interest towards football has only been portrayed in the form of graffiti and wall paintings when the World Cup season is on.