In the recently concluded AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualification competition in Kolkata, India could achieve the qualification to the continental championship after registering three wins in three games. Though the qualification to the Asian Cup 2023 was never in doubt as the Blue Tigers were facing three lower-ranked sides overall, the Indian team displayed a positive brand of football and there were no struggles like the last SAFF Cup in Maldives. Sunil Chhetri leads by example again Sunil Chhetri once again emerged as the top performer and carried forward his national team form with key goals and at the end of the campaign, Captain Fantastic took his international goal-scoring record to 84 goals. What an honor to India! we are blessed to see him score those all-important goals, With 4 goals in three games he equalled the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas’s 84 international goals and thus, Sunil becomes the 5th highest international goal scorer of all time. For Sunil, Kolkata is a familiar territory and with the high energy of fans, Sunil proved once again he is only getting younger with each passing year. I don’t know who else in Indian football scored these many crucial goals, well past his 37th birth date for a club or a national team. His free-kick goal against Afghanistan and India’s second goal against Hong Kong were crucial for India and both these goals were turning points in those two games. Against Cambodia, he scored a brace to start the campaign on a winning note for India. I had the honor to meet two Sunil Chhetri fans, who specially traveled from Lucknow only to witness Sunil, they anticipated Sunil might not play again in YBK, Salt Lake. But I told them you will have to come back again and again as Sunil will surely play in Kolkata again, more than once, and you never know what Sunil might decide, whenever he decides to retire, he will play in front of the capacity crowd in the mecca of Indian Football only. Salute to fans Kolkata proved once again, why it is called Mecca of Indian Football. In three games, the total attendance was approx. 115,000 which is an excellent advertisement for football in India and this was achieved in the complete absence of any publicity or promotions for these three games. Fans groups and football-loving masses have gone out of the way to promote complimentary ticket sales and in spite of inconveniences and the last-minute ticket distribution plans these many fans reaching the stadium with tickets, itself is testimony to prove that Kolkata continues to maintain the status of being called “Mecca of Indian football”. Fans extending respect to our beloved late Novy Kapadia at YBK deserve great appreciation. Novy’s contribution to Indian football should always be portrayed to the world and this way we will remember his great work and a perfect tribute to a football soldier, like Novy.
Missing plans to promote the games Trust me, if these games were promoted with a proper ticketing plan, then we could have witnessed capacity stadiums in all three games and above all, the overall value for the game, whether engagement of fans, commercial, television viewership, digital impressions, etc. could have been significantly higher. These value creations shouldn’t be left to happen accidentally in this 21st century but they should be designed to achieve a targeted value in every aspect of the game and not to forget, all the partners who invest millions into the game should derive value from each of these games and at the end, fans would see pull factor to make their presence felt in every game and thus, we will reach to a point when demand will outplay the supply for National Team games. Looking ahead…. For players, there is nothing like playing in front of a packed stadium and if players get these kinds of atmospheres playing at home, then they can always do their best and outshine the opposition. Kolkata deserves to host key games of Blue Tigers more often to get the best out of the Indian national team. I am sure Indian football will reach a phase one day when the hosting of National Team games will be auctioned within India, competitive bidding to get hosting rights with a condition of advance capacity booking of 50K+ tickets within a few weeks before the match day. Right now, the only challenger to Kolkata will be Kerala, and maybe another K, Kolhapur in Maharashtra where ticket demands can be more than the supply. No doubt, Goa and Northeast locations can also demonstrate high demand for the national team games, but existing stadiums are low in capacity in most parts of the Northeast.
We have the capacity to reach a competitive bidding stage in the near future, not to forget our football energy is much stronger than what it is portrayed by the market, We can’t entirely blame the market itself for this situation, but the blame must be taken by ourselves who are responsible to manage and administer the beautiful game in India.