Indian National Football Team Qualified For 2018 FIFA World Cup

The Indian national football team’s dim hopes of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup ended on October 8 as they lost 2-1 to Turkmenistan. Playing far away from home at the Kopetdag stadium in Ashgabat, the team could have used some support, even if it was only from cheering Indian fans on television. Unfortunately, there were none. The match was not telecast live and has not been shown subsequently.

As it turns out, there was plenty of football on Indian television that night. The Indian Super League game between Delhi Dynamos and Chennayin FC was seemingly on every channel. There was Star Sports HD 2 if you wanted to watch the ISL match in all its high-definition glory. If Hindi commentary was what you needed, then the game was also on Star Sports 3. If you preferred Bengali or Malyalam commentary, you could always switch to Jalsha Movies and Asianet Movies respectively.

But you were out of luck if you wanted to watch the Indian national team. There was only one option: track the Twitter handle of the All Indian Football Federation for updates.

Drumming up support

Indian broadcasters have embraced football over the last few years. The Indian fan has television access to club football from all the major leagues of the world including England, France, Spain, Italy and Australia. Even English lower league games are given the privilege of a live telecast. So why then do broadcasters ignore the national team? Even when the national team's matches get some screen time, they are aired with a fraction of the production quality of international club football.

While foreign leagues have a large fan base in India, the national team has been lagging behind. Using the hashtag #BackTheBlue, the All India Football Federation has been running a vociferous campaign urging fans to support the Indian team. It has worked to an extent, with sizeable crowds attending India’s two home games against Oman and Iran earlier this year. The team has been garnering support on social media as well. Twitter was abuzz with fans desperately searching for a livestream to watch the India-Turkmenistan game.

Mixed signals

There was much cheer in May when Sony Six announced that it would be telecasting all India’s World Cup qualifiers. The channel showed India’s first game against Oman in June. But ahead of India’s game away at Guam soon after, there was no mention of the match on Sony Six’s schedule. The channel subsequently explained that its broadcast deal did not cover this particular match and so it would not be shown live.

Following India’s latest match against Turkmenistan yesterday, Prasanna Krishnan, the business head of Sony Six and Kix clarified, "It's one of those strange problems in sports broadcasting rights. All federations own rights for their matches which they sell to agencies.  So while we have the rights for all India matches, for matches played in Oman and Turkmenistan, these federations sell the rights to other agencies."

The only way that this could be solved, according to him, is through consolidation of broadcasting rights, much like what has happened in Europe, where all the broadcasting rights are sold in one place and hence no dilution takes place. However, this would require complex negotiations among all football associations.

However, there was a silver lining for Indian football fans - Krishnan indicated that they had managed to seal an agreement with the agency that possesses rights for the Oman Football Association's matches and hence, the Oman-India qualifier on October 13 would be telecast by Sony Six. This would come as a shot in the arm for fans, who haven’t seen their team win a match in more than six months, with the October 8 defeat their fourth on the trot. Coach Stephen Constantine has already warned that Indian football is at death’s door. It’s an uphill battle when fans of the national team can’t even watch them live on television for a game as important as a World Cup qualifier.

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