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 were never in doubt as the Blue Tigers were facing three lower ranked sides but overall, Indian team displayed a positive brand of football and there were no struggles like 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 taken his international goal scoring record to 84 goals. What an honour 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 84 international goals and thus, Sunil becomes the 5th highest international goal scorer of all time.

Sunil Chhetri, Captain India

For Sunil, Kolkata is a familiar territory and with the high energy of fans, Sunil proved once again he is only getting younger by 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 freekick goal against Afghanistan and India’s second goal against Hong Kong were so 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 honour to meet two Sunil Chhetri fans, who specially travelled 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 sure play in Kolkata again, more than once, and you never know Sunil might decide, whenever he decides to retire, he would play in front of the capacity crowd in 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 to football in India and this was achieved in the complete absence of any publicity or promotions for these three games. Fans group and football loving masses gone out of the way to promote the complimentary ticket sales and inspite of inconveniences and the last minute ticket distribution plans these many fans reaching the stadium with tickets, itself is the 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 deserves great appreciation. Novy’s contribution to Indian football should always be portrayed to the world and this way we are remembering his great work and a perfect tribute to a football soldier, like Novy.

The most positive aspect is that the youth are turning up in high numbers for the games. There was a time when youth were missing from the stand for the national team games in Kolkata. Youth stayed away from the national team games may be due to a reason, as there were games where we lost by big margins against Asian giants like Japan and Saudi in Kolkata. In last few years, with organised fans group and social media connect youth are back on the stands which is an encouraging scenario for football in many ways. I don’t know how many of us have experienced, traveling to these games are not easy for fans, public transport is not always convenient medium to travel, fans have to organise themselves and it is one of the complex aspects of the whole process.

Missing plans to promote the games

Trust me, if these games were promoted with a proper ticketing plan, then we could have witnessed capacity stadium 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 it 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 out play 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 put 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 to a phase one day when hosting of National Team games will be auctioned within India, a competitive bidding to get hosting rights with a condition of advance capacity booking of 50K+ tickets within few weeks before the match day.

Right now, only challenger to Kolkata will be Kerala and may be 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 part of the Northeast.

Blue Tigers at YBK

We have the capacity to reach to a competitive bidding stage in near future, not to forget our football energy is much stronger than what it is portrayed by market, and we can’t entirely blame it to 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.

By Shaji Prabhakaran

Football Consultant| Sports Expert| President Football Delhi (FA)| Author| Ex-FIFA/AIFF| Consultant AFC, FIFA, ICC| CIES| Development| Management|

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