Football's new frontiers: why India and China could be the next global superpowers

For all football’s claims to be a universal language, the planet’s four most populous countries – India, China, USA and Indonesia – all failed to reach the 2018 World Cup. China have only ever qualified once, in 2002; India and Indonesia have never made it. Somehow, the world’s game has rather passed the biggest countries by. Yet this means there are still new lands for football to conquer. 

“Cricket was the game of the fathers. Football is the game of the sons,” proclaimed a document promoting the creation of the Indian Super League in 2014, a copycat of the Indian Premier League cricket competition. If the hyperbole was inescapable, the years since have vindicated optimism about football’s capacity for growth.

Football is now the third most popular sport to watch in India, though the ISL’s average audience is only one-fifth of the IPL and one-third of the Pro Kabbadi League. The fan base comprises two distinct groups: the hardcore, in Kerala, north-east India and West Bengal – where football out-ranks cricket; and a new type of fan, who are urban, young and affluent. In Bangalore and Mumbai, following European football is viewed as aspirational. 

Attendances for domestic matches are broadly growing, and doubled in the I-League’s most recent season, albeit only from 5,000 to 10,000. India’s last game, against Kenya, was an 18,000 sell-out, after captain Sunil Chhetri made a public appeal – supported by Virat Kohli – for more Indians to attend games. 

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