Almost 2 decades ago, I recall a resigned comment made by Prasun Bannerjee, ex-captain of Indian soccer team, on the popularity of soccer in India. Prasun said that if Sunil Gavaskar decides to walk any street in India, he will immediately be mobbed by 100 fans while Prasun will get none for doing the same act. I was a witness to such a situation around popular soccer stars in the late seventies, when some of us friends suddenly chanced upon Jamshid Nassiri (of the famed Majid-Jamshid pair from Iran who dominated Kolkata club football during those days) in front of New Market loitering alone. We struck up a casual conversation with him lasting for more than ten minutes with hardly any passerby showing any interest. Jamshid was sporting enough to answer our juvenile questions on football, Majid & other topics & even signed our autograph books. Finally when we departed , we saw him hail a cab and carry on with his solitary journey.
In 2009, probably the same reaction from fans holds true for MS Dhoni while Baichung Bhutia may get 10 fans instead of 100. And that's possibly because of the fact that the glut of telly channels have made his face well-known. Even a good looking news caster from the telly channel may get the same number of curious fans around her.
The cause for this indifference to soccer in India is not hard to find. While India ranks among the top three in World Cricket, she ranks 144 in the soccer world. The fact that only 8 countries play top class cricket does not seem to deter the hero worship from adulating fans.
Hence when soccer news gets the headlines in the print media, its always for the wrong reasons.
The latest wrong reason is the mess created around the suspension of 32 year old Indian captain & ,superstar Baichung Bhutia from the Mohunbagan football club (MFC) of Kolkata.Baichung apparently got the punishment for not turning up for practice for a few days as he had other professional commitments to keep. But he made sure that he had kept the coach informed. The club officials , incensed by such "insubordination" , sent Baichung a show cause notice. Baichung, well known among his fans for his career-long commitment to the sport & the employer, his humility & polite behaviour, was so stunned by this "ungrateful" reaction from MFC that he called a press conference and announced that he will no longer play for MFC.
This press conference got the MFC going. Managed by officials that include among others lawyers, politicians, corporate chieftains & businessmen of repute in the "Bhodrolok" society of Kolkata; MFC opined that no individual is bigger than a glorious century old institution like MFC & hence Baichung must get the stick & suspension order followed. For a soccer fan, nothing was more outrageous than such an action as
- It debars a player from earning his livelihood. Imagine a CEO being suspended for missing a couple of days in office .
- The punishment is out of proportion with the apparent folly of the player. Fining him monetarily could have been the best option as he had reneged on his contractual terms.
- It seemingly makes Baichung a bonded slave of MFC since he had repeatedly said that he has lost all interest in playing anymore for MFC.
- The fans care a fig for the so called tradition of the club. In the hundred plus years of its existence, MFC could not even bag a single trophy in club championships of international repute . MFC , like other soccer clubs of Kolkata , continue to play third rate, insipid & slow paced soccer that makes even Nepalese clubs yawn in boredom.
It is another matter that while AIFF has been a super failure in raising the standards of Indian soccer in the last two decades; English & German clubs like Man U, Bayern, Arsenal have started setting up joint ventures with local football academies in India. Very very large scale commercialisation of soccer in Indian clubs probably remain the only option for roping in talent & interest for enhancing standards just like what the BCCI, the Indian cricket board did for cricket in India in the last decade.
In the meanwhile, it will do a lot of good to restore the dignity of the post of Indian soccer captain among international observers & allow Baichung Bhutia to enthrall his fans with his magical soccer skills .