Two games are happening. Two of the biggest football clubs in India take on each other in a heated semifinal. Thousands of miles away, the defending champions of England play out a dead-rubber match against relegation fodder. On Hotstar, seventeen thousand people are watching the first. Four hundred and fifty thousand are watching the second. (More Football News)
Football is big in India – don’t let anyone tell you any different. It’s not cricket, but then, what is. The country still boasts of over a hundred and fifty to two hundred million followers of football. The Indian audience wins by dint of its demographic divide. Still, Indian football is an odd contradiction. Fans love the game, but not so much locally. It’s the global game which has caught the attention, and no one commands it so fully as the English Premier League does.
The Premier League since its 1992 inception has been one of the best marketed and globally successful products. To understand just how far it has penetrated, one needs only to look at the fan clubs in India.
There are die-hard United and Liverpool fans who will war each other when their teams play that storied derby in their far-away port towns. Arsenal supporters will tell you of two generations, about parents who first watched Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, then raised their kids on Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri.
There’s even the odd Tottenham fan who leaves you scratching your head. That’s how you know the league has really arrived here. Maybe even that’s outdated. You can now walk down Delhi’s Aerocity promenade on Saturday evening as the football comes on, and catch a Leeds United or Nottingham Forest shirt.
The Premier League arrived quickly, and before we knew it, became part of our popular culture. But that has been at the expense of our local game. We can’t blame the Premier League for that. They did it right.
Their product has been palatable, with marketable superstars, drama, aesthetics and storylines that make it exciting season in, season out. Local football has been stymied by corruption and maladministration. Fifa’s recent ban of the AIFF (All India Football Federation) underscores this.
There is also a lack of coherence and continuity in the calendar of Indian football. Sometimes, it is hard to even find out when the national team is playing or on what channel.
The advent of the Premier League has also forced shifts in football coaching. This is now reflected at every level, sometimes, at the cost of the game’s fundamentals.
You can go to a school tournament and watch skinny wingers and midfielders trying to emulate the immaculate passing style that Manchester City espouse. Their string will break apart within two or three passes, because they are just aping the final product, ignoring the incredible hard-work and technical ground-work that Manchester City laid before they even attempted to play such precise football.
In a way, that is the perfect metaphor for the Premier League’s influence world-wide, and especially in India. We are awed, and have tried to ape it. Reliance started the Indian Super League (ISL) with fanfare, signing on many veterans from England. The message was clear, they wanted to replicate that model here. The production and presentation was strikingly similar. Even cricket’s blockbuster event has borrowed a lot of its stylistic elements from the Premier League. Lalit Modi admits he was inspired by them.
But all of that continues to remain a hollow adaptation, lacking lustre and substance. For it does not include the vast variety of work that went into building the Premier League ecosystem. As we celebrate 30 years of the League, we have to remember it was painstakingly built and globally expanded through much trial and error. Most importantly, it was successful because it made its clubs partners in the story, and eventually the clubs propelled the global stardom.
If we want to start, on this 30th anniversary, the best lesson we can take away is to involve all stakeholders. Most often, we forget about them. Instead of now trying to imitate the Premier League, we should take our first cue from them. Let’s build our own unique story.