NEW DELHI: A reluctance to wear football boots at the 1950 World Cup is blamed for casting India into the soccer wilderness, but decades later the giant country is making real efforts to get back in the game.
Buoyed by a rising economic tide, football will return to India in a big way with the Under-17 World Cup in two years’ time, an event which officials hope is just the start.
Already India’s football federation has its eye on hosting the Under-20 World Cup, as well as the Club World Cup, a prestigious tournament which features some of the sport’s biggest stars.
It’s a far cry from India’s fateful withdrawal from the first post-war World Cup in 1950 in Brazil, after they won Asia’s qualifying spot by default when the other teams all pulled out.
The reasoning behind India’s withdrawal remains obscure, but travel difficulties, a failure to grasp the event’s importance, and the rule that their barefoot players must wear boots are all cited.
With India mere bystanders, Uruguay stunned Brazil in the final match and World Cup lore was set in motion, with football later rising to become a true global game with revenues and visibility to match.
“The Indian team opted out… we didn’t want to play with shoes,” said All India Football Federation president Praful Patel.
“So India actually had an entry into the World Cup and we opted out of playing the World Cup. And then of course, once you’ve missed the bus, the whole world just flew by and we were left way behind.”
Sixty-five years later, India has never again come close to contesting a World Cup, languishing at 172nd in the rankings and losing a recent qualifier to the tiny Pacific territory of Guam.
But football is at least gaining traction in the cricket-dominated country of 1.2 billion, with two professional leagues including the two-year-old Indian Super League, featuring a list of fading stars.
“As the All India Football Federation we receive so much of hate mail and brickbats. I don’t blame anybody for that but we also have to understand that we cannot transform Indian football overnight, it has to be a process,” Patel said.
“I think the time is for everybody to pull up their socks, work together, heart and soul and minds, and let’s make India really rock,” he added.
Patel was speaking at the launch of the Under-17 World Cup, which took place with Bollywood actors and a typical touch of chaos at a luxury hotel in New Delhi.
After a half-hour delay to get the set ready, a ceremonial ball was handed over and highlights of the last U-17 World Cup in Chile were screened by overhead projector, to a soundtrack played at ear-splitting volume.
With memories still fresh of New Delhi’s embarrassing 2010 Commonwealth Games, plagued by delays and corruption, Patel said no major problems were expected — but he admitted it would be a challenge to get the venues ready on time.
Under-17 coach Nicolai Adam warned that India would also find it hard on the pitch, with their rival teams featuring many players honed by the world’s finest football academies.
But he said there would be no disgrace for India, even if they are on the wrong end of some big scorelines.
“For me, an embarrassment is if you run away from big challenges,” said the German. “Maybe we will get smashed 6-0, but it will not be an embarrassment for this country.”
Embarrassment or not, one thing is certain for India — at this World Cup, they will be wearing boots.