World Cup 2018 may have lost a bit of sheen with most of the big names exiting quite early, but India is in the grip of the football fever nevertheless. The final between Croatia and France is lined up for July 15, but one question that keeps popping up in the minds of Indian football fans is this: When will India compete in the World Cup?
In Union Minister Vijay Goel's opinion, India will play in the FIFA World Cup soon.
Said Goel to THE WEEK, “Football is the second most popular game in the country, after cricket. Our ranking is improving on a regular basis. We will very soon play in the World Cup.” Goel said the government is committed to improving Indian football’s standards.
“Football has its charm. More and more Indians are realising it. We will continue to invest in the game. We are optimistic about the future,” said the former Union sports minister. “The sports ministry and the government of India are doing everything possible to improve the standards of football in the country. We will help spot young talent and invest a lot in football. We will provide all help to the All India Football Federation,” he said.
Goel, who is now the minister of state for parliamentary affairs, was the sports minister when the FIFA U-17 World Cup was held in India in 2017. Along with FIFA’s inspection team, Goel used to take stock of work across stadiums in the country. He made periodical visits to venues where the matches were held. Goel also ensured decent turnout in Delhi’s stadiums during the match days.
Though cricket continues to be the most celebrated sport in India, Goel doesn't blame cricket for football not getting its due share.
India are 97 in FIFA rankings. The highest ranking, till date, was in 1996, when they were ranked 94. The lowest was 173, in March 2015. India bowed out of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in the second round.
In October 2017, India qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, where it has appeared only three times in the past—1964, 1984 and 2011. A good performance in the Asian Cup will motivate the team to perform better in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, to be held from 2020 to 2022.
From 2026, FIFA will add 16 more teams to the World Cup, with four more teams from Asia. India, it is being said, should become one of the top five teams in Asia to get into the World Cup in 2026 or 2030; 2022, at the moment, seems unrealistic.
Said M.A. Baby, CPI(M) leader and an aficionado of the game, to THE WEEK, “If Iceland, with a population of less than a district in Kerala, can perform well, why cannot India? The immediate need is to evolve a proper sports policy. A sport like football should be administered by only footballers. Politicians should not be allowed to call the shots.”
Baby said cricket has become a business in India. “We need to catch them [the footballers] young, and give them thorough training and exposure in the game.”
Baby mentioned how Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child. “But his team [Barcelona] rallied behind him, paid for his treatment, and gave him all the support that was needed. So much was spent on him. That’s the dedication we should have towards football and footballers in India,” he said.