Of Messi, Mbappe, World Cup Final And The Politics Of Football

Sunday, 18 December, 8.30 pm IST. Messi versus Mbappe. After 63 matches that began on November 20, the world and India are waiting.

The oft-asked question – 1.3 billion of us and we can’t come up with a top-notch football team?

During the golden era of the sport in India between 1950 and 1962, we ranked better, far better than where we are placed today. A year after India secured fourth position at the 1956 Olympics, there were reports that FIFA ranked India 9th in the world! Today, we are 106 out of 211 countries. It’s little consolation that this is a slight improvement in the average ranking of 130 since 1993.

As many as eight countries taking part in the ongoing World Cup – Costa Rica, Croatia, Belgium among them – have populations less than that of Kolkata’s. So why not India?

Fans from Kerala to Bengal to Goa take vicarious pleasure in supporting Brazil or Argentina or France… India is out of focus because there is not much to focus on. Football lags – the Men in Blue are better known than the Blue Tigers, the nickname for India’s football team, given by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The only chance India had to play in the World Cup was in 1950 when the tournament was being held in Brazil. India opted out, instead choosing to participate in the Olympics. It had nothing to do with not being allowed to play barefoot or shortage of funding.

In subsequent years, the influence of politics and politicians on Indian sport led to Rahul Mehra, a Delhi-based advocate, filing a case against the AIFF. He lashed out against the apex football governing body, seeking to know what it has done for Indian football since independence. That the Union Budget for sports has now halved the allocation for football has not helped.

Though India boasts of the world’s biggest sports stadium (Ahmedabad) and the 11th largest football stadium (Salt Lake, Kolkata), the infrastructure and facilities required to produce world standard players are severely lacking. We need thousands of regular-sized playing arenas across the country to promote the sport – a handful of massive showpiece stadiums will not nurture the game.

Football associations and governing bodies in countries doing well in the sport have former accomplished players heading them. From Brazil, France, Italy to Poland, Liberia and Hungary, former players have taken up politics in one form or the other and steered their respective country’s fortunes in football. An article in The Bridge, a portal focussing on improving sports in India, found that politicians head as much as 47% of the country’s sports associations and federations.

The late Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi of the Congress headed the AIFF for 20 years, from 1988 to 2008. He was succeeded by NCP politician Praful Patel, who was AIFF president for 14 years till the Supreme Court removed him this year for not holding elections in the federation. In fact, FIFA suspended the AIFF for violating its statutes on third-party interference and stripped it of its hosting rights for international football tournaments. It was only after the court restored the AIFF management under a newly elected president that FIFA restored the hosting rights.

Non-politicians too have headed sports bodies. Industrialist Jagmohan Dalmiya, long-time cricket administrator, was an able man who lifted the fortunes and standards of Indian and international cricket. Can we find a modern-day Dalmiya for football?

There are several footballers who have turned politicians. Hungary’s former Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the country’s football manager. He played at an amateur level with his local club Felcslut FC. He once cancelled a cabinet meeting to play a match in 2001. Lilian Thuram, the World Cup-winning defender, debated with future French President Nicolas Sarkozy on television; he was offered the job of ‘Minister of Diversity’ when Sarkozy was elected. Thuram rejected the offer. By the way, Thuram’s son is in the French team for this World Cup.

Milan legend Gianni Rivera made the transition from football to politics, serving in the Italian parliament before being made an undersecretary for defence in Romano Prodi’s government. He has worked as a sports administrator in Italy since 2001.

Football legend Zico worked briefly in Brazil’s Fernando Collor de Mello administration in the early 90s as Minister for Sport. His biggest contribution was processing legislation to assist sports clubs with their business affairs. The title of ‘Extraordinary Minister for Sport’ is held by fellow Brazilian guru Pele. We have also seen Neymar campaigning for Bolsonaro.

Closer home, we have Prasun Banerjee who became a politician after retirement and is now a three-term Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha MP. N Biren Singh, Manipur Chief Minister, used to play for BSF (Border Security Force). This is an incomplete list. I am sure there are many other examples from different states. After all, football for many is ‘My Life And The Beautiful Game’.

P.S. I played football in Bengal at a decent level. Goalkeeper. Never mind, that’s another story. On Sunday it will be Messi versus Mbappe. My hunch – France. What’s your prediction?

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Friday, December 16, 2022]