For Karanjeet Singh, a 13-year-old student in a South Delhi school, football began as a casual kick-about with his friends. Nothing serious, nothing worth giving up his life for. That was four years ago. Today, things have changed, as he returns from a gruelling practice session at a football academy in New Delhi. “Today was about tactics, closing down tight spaces,” he explains during his warm down session, dressed in a Liverpool replica shirt.
Singh’s interest in football piqued not because of homegrown heroes, but the changing nature of media consumption: the internet. “When I was growing up, everyone around me was just into cricket. I personally felt otherwise,” he says. “It wasn’t a difficult choice to make either. I was just blown away by some of the skills that some of these international footballers have. I would spend at least 6-9 hours a day on YouTube, watching them, making mental notes of how to execute them, and the next day during practice, I’d try it. 99 out of 100 times I’d fail, but just trying those skills gave me the satisfaction.”
Singh is not alone. He speaks for many Indian teenagers who are slowly taking up the sport, not just as a skill enhancement activity, or even a hobby sport, but with one eye on a professional career. Either in India or, the more ambitious ones like Singh, think Europe. In his case, it’s Liverpool, one of the top clubs in England’s popular Premier League.
A decade ago, football for most Indian teenagers would start as a dream that would typically begin in school but wither away for either cricket or other meaningful callings, outside of sport. Now that is changing. One Karanjeet Singh at a time. There’s a surge happening on the ground, and it is real. In February, the international football federation, FIFA, launched a Mission XI Million programme in India, with an ambitious target of getting 11 million children into the sport. The aim: to take the game to 12,000 schools in 37 cities across the country. But before you start thinking that India might be close to finding a Lionel Messi of its own, it’s important to take a step back and contextualise this surge.
How football is closing the gap
There is no doubt about cricket, in spite of everything surrounding the sport, maintaining its status as India’s favourite national pastime. Which is also why Star India recently made a five-year, Rs 16,347.5 crore media rights bet on the Indian Premier League (IPL). But what was once a runaway sport of choice, the default for millions of Indians, is slowly facing competition at the school stage itself.