The Football World Cup, the single greatest event in the world, commences in Russia this week. While India has not qualified, there are some tectonic shifts taking place with respect to the game which every marketer needs to take note of. What was once largely (barring a few pockets) a monsoon kick-about in many parts of the country, is now rapidly becoming a passionate calling of all-season proportions. Having evangelised the beautiful game for over two decades, I have seen this transition in close quarters; sometimes being tackled to the ground while trying to comprehend it.
Here are a few pointers culled across formal football pitches, traffic-infested streets, concretised building compounds, ever-emerging rink turfs, increasingly disappearing public parks and overcrowded beaches, all of which have been arenas where my relationship with this sport has blossomed.
A revolution which has 'kick'-started
There was a time in the early eighties when hockey was almost as popular as cricket. Then, post India's failure in the 1982 World Cup in Mumbai, followed by that huge demoralising loss to Pakistan in the Asian Games final in New Delhi the same year, the public's engagement with hockey suffered. This further slipped with respect to cricket, when India won the Prudential World Cup in 1983. Cricket has never had to share the summit with anyone since.
And now, football is growing in India. While it would still need more than 'extra-time' and 'sudden death' to challenge cricket, what is pertinent to keep in mind is which segments it is growing in by leaps and bounds. The urban, middle and upper-middle class young are taking to it in a frenetic frenzy.
Local rink turfs are always chock-a-block with teenagers awaiting their turn. Footballing academies are getting never-before-seen footfalls. One is more likely to see famous soccer jerseys being flaunted in cities, rather than wardrobe items of any other pop-culture lineage. A revolution of sorts is truly afoot. It might need a really significant tipping point(s) of sorts, to truly tilt the scales though.
A generation that has gone clubbing
My generation grew up with World Cups and following the prominent nations - Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy, England and the like. The young of today revere their favourite European clubs. Perhaps that has allowed them to take the relationship a notch further. Club involvement is round the year; World Cups come around only once in four. Clubs entail regular conversation starters like table positions, new signings, style of play, managerial influence, favourite stars and scapegoats, controversies and so on. They have jerseys (club kits) which change (slightly) every year. They have well-established communities one can belong to. Hell, they even have anthems you can use as your ringtone. It's no wonder that club allegiances are literally broadcast these days.
A case of 'I' before 'we'
Football has often been called the ultimate team sport. But probably an offshoot of the 'Messi-Ronaldo era', coupled with a rise of the individual perspective, has seen some curious things happening. Being privy to conversations over-zealous parents have with hapless coaches (most of whom have grown bald over this), can be quite revealing. Sometimes it all boils down to, 'Why isn't my child playing as a striker?' or simply put 'Why isn't he/ she scoring?' Having grown up in an era which celebrated magical playmakers like Maradona, Zico and Platini, one finds this focus only on scoring as the end-all of footballing experiences misplaced even erroneous. However, there seems a dominant surge of appropriating 'my space' on the pitch. The mindset of today is all about being a 'face', even when huddled together in a defensive wall.
A love tender spanning gender
What has been really encouraging is the manner in which women have recently taken to football. At what point this precisely happened, is unclear; perhaps David Beckham's changing hairstyles provided the vital strand. But the number of girls playing the sport in India has gone up significantly over the last decade. The quality and intensity of play at school, college and even corporate level tournaments are palpable. And not just ladies who don soccer boots, there is a huge surge of interest in the game even among those who don't. A few recent commercials have captured this changing trend somewhat. While individual racquet sports like badminton and tennis have caught the fancy of young girls, it might be safe to assume when it comes to team-sport, few involve women as much as football. Though this interest might have been a ruse all along, to pick up vital tips, to kick their better (or is it worse?) halves into shape.
As the World Cup in Russia unfolds, we will be witness to the overwhelming passion that fans of the participating nations will exhibit. But whilst looking outward, it might also be instructive to gaze around one's own surrounding, to sample first-hand how much the sport means in India as well. For things can never be mundane, when there's a Mundial on.
(The author is a creative thinking trainer and the author of 'Lessons from the Playground' and 'The Madness Starts at 9'. He is also the patron saint of a football club, Juhu Beach United, the tales behind which have loosely inspired the recent Bollywood movie 'Tu Hain Mera Sunday').
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