India is currently 165th in the FIFA rankings. Embarrassing? Yes. But is anybody really surprised? Football has been in the doldrums in this country for decades now. The only international teams that India can get past these days are from the subcontinent – Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. A Bundesliga club does not have to break into a sweat to hand out a 4-0 drubbing to the Indian team, as FC Bayern Munich proved in Delhi. So, why are we so enthused by Indian football’s future? We have good reason. It isn’t only because the game’s governing body, FIFA, believes that India is a sleeping giant that, if it is shaken out of its slumber, could in the long run achieve a thing or two in world soccer. Moreover, international interest in India as a market for world football and its many spin-offs is slowly but steadily peaking thanks to the nation’s growing economic clout and the availability of a large base of TV viewers totally hooked to football. That last bit is absolutely true: if there is one sport in this world that Indians genuinely love, it is soccer. Proof of that truism is provided every time a World Cup is upon us – the widespread enthusiasm that the tournament generates in this country despite the fact that India has never been in the running is phenomenal, to say the least. There can be no bigger fallacy than the notion that India is a cricket-crazy, single-sport nation. Indians are anything but genuine cricket lovers; the game is only a vehicle for shallow jingoism. We discover our love for cricket only when India is engaged in a contest; we care two hoots about the game when, say, England plays Australia in a needle Test encounter. In contrast, we watch football purely for the love of the beautiful game. If you worry that soccer cannot be packaged and sold in this country, then you have another think coming. Admittedly, India would need to create its own range of football properties in terms of both saleable events and charismatic superstars in the next few years to parlay the popular passion for the game into long-term financial numbers. This certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Yes, for that to happen, the game has to travel beyond the Indian metros and the handful of states (Bengal, Kerala and Goa) where it is currently patronised. With clubs like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Barcelona having already made their intentions clear about playing ball in India to maximise their talent scouting and branding exercises, this country is sitting on a goldmine. Local talent might take a few more years to evolve and rise to global standards – the European academies setting up shop here is definitely a step in the right direction – but eyeballs in the stands and in our living rooms are always available in abundance in India. Ranji matches sans the stars are played before empty stands but when two domestic football clubs square off in Kolkata, Goa or Delhi, the stadium is usually packed to the rafters. Let’s go for it. The tackle might be hard but it would be worth the pain.