India and China make up a third of the world’s population between them – and are the rising tiger and dragon of the global economy – yet both are even further away from reaching the biggest event on Earth, the Fifa World Cup finals, than Bafana Bafana. How come?
Let’s start with India and let’s also start by ditching the notion that, in sporting terms, Indians are only obsessed with cricket. On my first visit there two years ago I was struck, not by the predictable plethora of scratch cricket matches going on everywhere, but by the equal number of people all over the place in sweaty pursuit of a football. (There was also an abundance on TV of a curious and popular sport called Kabaddi but I won’t even start trying to explain that glorified game of tag.)
And let’s also ditch the physical stereotype argument. Indians come in all shapes and sizes. If they can produce strong lanky pace bowlers they can produce decent centre halves and Indian wicket-keeping legend MS Dhoni began his sporting life as a talented goalkeeper. If India’s hockey team could go toe-to-toe with Australia in the recent Champions Trophy final and only lose on penalties then they must be able to find suitable specimens for soccer midfielders and strikers.
Even on the most basic maths, a minimum of 100 million Indians would have an interest in football yet the only win they got in the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup was a 1-0 scramble over Guam (population 162,000) before 6,000 people in Bengaluru. (6,000 souls in Bengaluru barely counts as a crowd – there are more people on a single train platform in that city at any given moment.) India went on to lose the away game to Guam 2-1 and finished stone last in their group.
Clearly things are truly dire in Indian soccer yet the nation has history in the sport. They were meant to play at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but famously withdrew at the last moment because Fifa insisted that their barefoot players wear boots. Famously and inaccurately in turns out, because that fabled soccer yarn is a fib. The Indian authorities used the boots as an excuse not to send a team on the real grounds of expense and focusing on what they considered to be more important Asian and Olympic tournaments coming up. The Indians did indeed take a creditable fourth place at the 1956 Olympics and they won a couple of Asian titles in the ‘60s.
One further point is that the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata was, until a recent redesign, the second biggest football stadium in the world, with a 125,000 capacity that occasionally got filled for the big Bengal derbies. (The biggest football stadium in the world, by the way, is the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang – largely empty for Mangyŏngbong against Kyŏnggongŏp in the North Korean Premier League but often full for Kim Jong-un’s compulsory military rallies and gymnastic displays.)
Basically, the last 50 years have been a shambles in Indian soccer with the national team not even matching the better teams in their ‘hood like Malaysia and Thailand, let alone the bigger guns elsewhere in Asia, let alone the rest of the world. There was one period of eight years where the national team had so many different coaches that there’s no official record of everyone who held the position.
The latest attempt to kick-start the game on the sub-continent is the Indian Super League which began four years ago and is modelled on cricket’s IPL with franchises owned by celebrities (Sachin Tendulkar is involved in one) and billionaires, with some stellar, but very old, playing imports like Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pirès, David James, Fredrik Ljungberg and David Trezeguet. If you care, Chennaiyin, managed by former England and QPR midfielder John Gregory, won last season’s ISL title in front of healthy crowds.
The Indian national team is, maybe, starting to see some benefit from the ISL having ticked up (yes up!) to 97th in the global rankings and qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup by beating the might of Myunmar and Macau. But there’s a still a very long way to go to the World Cup finals.
That road is also long for China, but not quite as long. Having started with a major handicap – they were out of FIFA completely from 1958 to 1979 in a dispute over the recognition of Taiwan – they qualified for their first ever World Cup finals in 2002. They also have a reasonable track record in the Asian Nations Cup and beat Guam (them again!) by a record 19-0 in 2000.
Many, including me, assumed that their 2002 World Cup finals appearance was the herald of the emergence of a football superpower. But that simply has not happened. In 2018 World Cup qualifying, China were twice held 0-0 by Hong Kong (which they rule!) and lost at home to Syria. The team is currently globally ranked one place behind Bafana at 75 and national pride is further offended by the constant presence of their nearby rivals – South Korea and Japan – at the pinnacle of the game.
Chinese football has gone backwards in the past 16 years in spite of the establishment of the Chinese Super League in 2004 which has very high-profile coaches (Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro manages current champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, if you care) and, unlike the Indian equivalent, also has foreign stars who aren’t hasbeens – Paulinho, Carlos Tevez, Oscar and Ricardo Carvalho have all played there in their prime. The other thing the league has had is monumental corruption, fraud and match-fixing – the Chinese betting rings seem to have inordinate power and influence.
The stubborn lack of progress by the national team is in spite of President Xi Jinping being a football fan who has set a national goal of winning the World Cup. And what President-For-Life Xi wants, he usually gets. They’ve done the whole command economy thing – high-level government working group; football a compulsory part of the national curriculum; 20,000 football-themed schools being opened – but have nothing to show for it yet.
The ridiculous plan to expand the Fifa World Cup finals to 48 teams in 2026 might help China to qualify but no one is now seriously suggesting they will win the thing in Xi’s lifetime.
China is due to meet India in a friendly this October. Given the monumental ambitions, potential, population and economic power of both nations, it’s staggering how few people will care about the outcome of that football match. DM
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