Football is gaining ground in India ahead of the U-17 FIFA World Cup in October, but cricket still reigns supreme in the ratings leaving work to be done

India has a population of 1.311 billion and the Indian Premier League (IPL) – the dominant domestic cricket league of the country – had a television viewership around 500-600 million for the 60 matches in 2017.

With the overwhelming popularity of cricket in India, that half of the nation would be glued to their television screen is quite natural. Football, in comparison, has a lot to do to catch up to these amazing figures.

Yes, the viewers for the city-based franchise football league, the Indian Super League (ISL), are growing every year. In its third year since inception in 2014, ISL had no less than 216 million viewers for 59 matches in the 2016 edition. Compared to the FIFA World Cup 2014 where only around 70 million people watched live coverage of the matches, ISL had, by far, been the second most watched tournament in India.

Can we conclude that the popularity of football in India is increasing by the day?

The numbers are definitely increasing as far as the ISL is concerned but overall, the scenario is gloomy. For the forthcoming FIFA Under-17 World Cup, to be held in India from October 6-28, ticket sales are not at all encouraging.

Only two among six of the host cities, Kolkata and Guwahati, had all their Phase 1 tickets sold so far. Football is immensely popular in West Bengal and Kolkata is said to be the Mecca of Indian Football. That the tickets for the Phase 1 were sold out in less than twenty-four hours for the ten matches in Kolkata was not surprising at all.

Similarly, football is followed passionately in the North-East region of the country now. Aizawl FC, a club from Mizoram, were crowned champions in the I league in 2017, the number one club-based league in India while there were at least four footballers from the North-East in each of the eight ISL franchises. Guwahati picked up sales a little late, but it was expected from the football-fans of the North-East to grab the tickets for the first and the most coveted FIFA event in India.

The other four centres for the U-17 premier event – Mumbai, Kochi, Delhi and Goa – though, had a pathetic run so far. Initially, India was scheduled to play their group league matches in Mumbai which had to be shifted to the capital New Delhi following a request from the local organisers. The Chilean tournament director, Javier Ceppi, was reportedly happy after the ticket sales grew in Delhi after the decision to hold India’s matches at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi.

But the most shocking news came from Goa where Football is considered to be the most popular sport even now after Kolkata and North-East. The indifferent attitude towards the I League by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had compelled the traditional giants in Indian football like Dempo, Salgaocar, Sporting Clube de Goa to stay away from the I league in 2017.

FC Goa, too, failed to impress under the coaching of the legendary Brazilian, Zico, in the third ISL. The only region in India where Portuguese was the official language once, trying to stay away from the football bonanza now, is definitely shocking.

In India, European club football leagues, mostly the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga, are followed with much enthusiasm. Because of Indians’ affinity to the English language and the convenient telecasting time of the EPL, matches involving English giants are widely followed.

FC Barcelona and Real Madrid had more followers (around 8.2 millions each) in India than any other Asian country, says the TV-viewership records. Naturally, the matches involving either of these two attracts more viewers. German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Dutch Eredivisie are shown live regularly but the TRPs are far less compared to the EPL, La Liga and even the UEFA Champions League matches, despite the midnight timings.

Roam around the metro cities and North-East, you can easily found supporters proudly wearing their favoured team-shirts. Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester United shirts will be seen more often rather than those of Dempo, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC or the official Blue jersey of the Indian football team.

Of late, a few of the Atletico de Kolkata and Aizawl FC shirts can be seen too. But if you go out of the metro cities, the numbers are relatively poor, reflecting the fact that the popularity of these teams are mainly because of the increasing social media hype. The official broadcasters of the FIFA U17 World Cup in India are hoping to attract around 50 million viewers for the 23-day tournament in October. Optimistic, they are!

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