Earlier this year, Monocle dedicated a slice of the magazine to its Soft Power Survey, a run-down of countries and their ability to create and sustain influence in positive ways.
For the first time in its four year history, sport was its own category in the metrics. Football naturally was the most pervasive and global of all sports.
“Footballers playing abroad in the top leagues, major events screened around the globe, the competitors and teams that stand out from the crowd — all these have an impact on the way a country is viewed.”
Germany, not unexpectedly, boasted a significant number of players contracted to clubs in the world’s top leagues (though what those leagues are, and the presumed Euro-centric definition of ‘top’ leave this metric open to debate), and four clubs in the ‘global rich list’.
What is Soft Power? Monocle’s own definition is “attraction rather than coercion.”
This is why nations vie for the chance to host the Olympics or the World Cup; it is as much for the ‘feel-good factor’ as any tangible economic benefit or demonstration of infrastructure or clout.
It is a ‘soft’ way of showing that a nation has not only arrived as a serious player on the global stage, but also that it has sufficient traction to persuade others to get behind its bid; it shows that a nation has friends as well as influence.
Is Indian football really the key to this demonstration of soft power then?
Football clubs certainly embody values which are conducive to the growth of ‘soft power’. The ownership principles of Bundesliga clubs, which ensure that fans retain a controlling interest in the club, or the socis principle by which Barcelona, among other Spanish clubs, are run, speaks to a sense of egalitarianism and being rooted in the local. In an age of globalisation and aggressive capitalism, these models seem to stand for something fairer, more decent, and more located in the actual identity of the club than, say, the franchise system of many US sports. This is soft economic power, the engendering of positive values by association.
Footballers have also become brands in themselves, which can have soft power benefits for the nations they represent.
Monocle cites the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Sweden’s ‘soft-power superstar’, a poster boy for integration and achievement despite his self-professed humble origins. It is Zlatan’s unquestioned talent and drive that have elevated him to world-wide acclaim and financial success, and football is full of such rags-to-riches tales, often involving individuals from backgrounds whose overwhelming narrative, imposed externally by the traditional seats of power, is of social exclusion or failure. This is an attractive story, aspirational and inclusive.
Believe it or not, India has similar foundations of football as some of the world’s soccer powers.
The first attempt to codify the rules of the game was in 1848 by Cambridge University, London. Nine years later, came Sheffield FC, the oldest surviving football club of today.
On our part, India articulated its first rules of the Durand Cup in 1888. Mohun Bagan SC followed. Kolkata club went on to record famous victory over Yorkshire Regiment in 1911.
But our Golden Era was 1951 to 1970.
While world football reinvented the game, presenting over 3.5 billion fans across globe, we lost our shine.
The Indian Super League (ISL) announced earlier this month, is our attempt to write a new chapter. Can we create a footballing culture with renewed energy, investment and commitment by the stakeholders? Well, the ingredients are there. Read IMG Worldwide, Reliance Industries, Star India and the Indian Federation, AIFF, on the same mission!
Leveraging the strengths of these partners, ISL envisions creating new football powerhouses in this part of the world, and rising to global prominence as the country develops.
Announcement of the eight ‘League Partners’, is the first step towards setting the pace for the dream of a billion-plus Indians to experience and embrace the beauty of top-quality football.
A prominent criterion in the process of ‘League Partners’ selection had been the commitment towards grass roots development. That’s a wise move.
In the first year itself, ISL, along with its eight Partners, aims to reach out to 1 million kids through an in-school program and community development. Going forward, the league envisage to have grassroots training module, on the lines of FIFA approved programs, for age specific coaching starting with U-8 and by the year five, each League Partners to have a full-time academy.
“We want to unlock the unbound aspirational energy of our youth through grassroots and community development programs,” said Nita M. Ambani. “Together, we will strive to build a vibrant ecosystem that will provide impetus to football in India. As Mentor of the League, I commit myself to development of football as a major sport for the youth of India.”
Indeed, we are uniquely placed as one of the youngest nations on the planet in terms of demography and poised to emerge as a major economic power.
"Inspiring our nation to excel is a priority and comes naturally to us at Star India. With our expertise in marketing and production of sports content, our task is cut out to etch football in the sports culture of India," said Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India. "The nation has been awaiting its second sport for far too long. And we're delighted to collaborate with esteemed partners in the business and sports world to make that happen!"
ISL indeed represents that transformational lunge for Indian football.
Here’s to more power beneath its wings!
(The columnist works at the intersect of media, strategy and regulation on RIL. The views are personal. Tweets @therohitbansal).