Last year, on July 28, India took on the United Arab Emirates in a World Cup qualifying return match in New Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium. An hour before kickoff, rain lashed the venue. But the heavy downpour did not dampen the spirits of the spectators.
The much anticipated game went ahead as scheduled and not a soul in the stands left the stadium even though the torrential rain showed no sign of abating.
Says Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) president Subhash Chopra: “It was proof, if proof were indeed needed, of what kind of mass following the game of football has in this country.”
There has never been any doubt that Indians love the Beautiful Game. But now, our engagement with the game is set to acquire a new traction. With the country’s economy growing at a rapid pace and money available for major sporting events, leading European clubs and international soccer stars are making a beeline for India.
English Premier League (EPL) club Liverpool has already kick-started a full-fledged football academy in India.
Barcelona FC and Manchester United have firmed up plans to follow suit while Brazilian footballer Roberto Mendes Silva has also drawn up plans for a football school in India.
The turnout at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata for a FIFA-backed friendly game between Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Venezuela last September took even the participating players by surprise. They could not have imagined that in lowly-ranked India, a soccer game would be such a huge draw.
Much the same happened when Bundesliga giants FC Bayern Munich played an exhibition game against the Indian team in Delhi last month. It was billed as Baichung Bhutia’s farewell match – the game was a sellout, once again poitning to the popularity of football as a spectator sport.
There is much else that points towards India’s growing importance as a bustling market for football. Poultry industry major Venky’s has bought English club Blackburn Rovers; former football stars like Ronaldo, Cafu and Maldini are scheduled to play an exhibition tie in Kolkata; and there is news that the Sahara group (which has just ended its 11-year-old sponsorship deal with the Board of Control for Cricket in India) is interested in sponsoring an English club.
It is clear that while much is grievously wrong with Indian football at this juncture, this nation of a billion-plus people has the inherent potential of attracting the best talent that the game has to offer.
And if that were to happen on a regular basis, Indian soccer is bound to receive a major fillip as young talent comes to the fore, enthused and inspired by the mainstreaming of the game.
It might be pertinent to note in this context that India’s favourite sport, cricket, is beginning to lose its sheen. Overkill is steadily robbing it of the instant mass appeal that it still commands.
But the day is probably not be far off when soccer, the world’s No. 1 sport, might find its way into the hearts of Indians to such an extent that cricket might suddenly be in danger of being eclipsed.
A survey in 2010 found that 47 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are “football lovers”. With such numbers on its side, there is no reason why soccer in this country cannot be lifted out of the morass of mediocrity that it is currently trapped in.
Senior journalist Ratnesh Mishra agrees that the passion for soccer is increasing markedly in India. “I have just enrolled my 14-year-old son, Atulya Shekhar, in a football academy at his own behest.”
Ratnesh’s isn’t a stray case. Former Indian Test and ODI cricketer Chetan Sharma’s son, Rachit, plays football. The boy represented the Delhi state junior team last year.
Delhi power minister Haroon Yusuf’s son, too, is an aspiring footballer. “He took me to a shoe store recently to buy a pair of football boots, the same brand that Wayne Rooney wears,” he reveals.
Union sports and youth affairs minister Ajay Maken is another celebrity who has a budding footballer at home. Maken used to play cricket in his school and college days but his son’s passion is focused solely on soccer.
Senior bureaucrat Sudhir Mahajan, too, is looking for a good football academy for his son.
It is indeed true that an increasing number of children in India are now taking to the soccer turf rather than to the cricket ground. But it isn’t that football did not figure in our consciousness in the past. India, a two-time winner of the Asian Games football gold medal, was a force to reckon with in soccer at the continental level until the 1970s. The country has always had a lively soccer tradition.
The year 1983 was probably the turning point. India won the cricket World Cup and the gentleman’s game quickly overshadowed all other sports particularly after it turned into a form of money-spinning television entertainment for a captive nation.
The game of cricket gives advertisers on television value for money because it is played over a much longer period than any other game. As cricket and its stars captured the imagination of India, all other sports, including football, receded to the background.
Ironically, the resurgence of soccer in India is also being fuelled to a great extent by television. Thanks to channels like ESPN and Ten Sports, Messi, Rooney and Torres, among countless other soccer superstars, are today household names in places where Sachin Tendulkar was once the sole God.
In 2008, Sooni Taraporevala, internationally feted film director Mira Nair’s long-time screenwriter, made an English-language film set in Mumbai’s distinctive Parsi milieu. Titled Little Zizou, it told the story of an 11-year-old motherless boy, Xerxes, who dreams of meeting his idol, iconic French footballer Zinedine Zidane, one day. Xerxes believes that his mother is now an angel who will help him fulfil his desire.
When asked whether 11-year-olds in Mumbai do have such ingrained love for the game of football, Taraporevala had asserted that is indeed the case. Love for football is second to none in the western metropolis, generally regarded as Indian cricket’s nursery.
“In this fast moving world, people do not have time to spare for five-day Tests or one-day cricket. This could be one reason for football’s increasing appeal in India,” says Abdul Quddoos, founding general secretary of Delhi-based Ahbab Football Club.
On October 1, the official Liverpool football academy, under former midfielder Steve McMahon, started its training stint at Genesis Global School, Noida, as part of the EPL club’s expanding scouting and branding exercise.
The director, sports, of Genesis Global School, Gulbir Singh, is upbeat about the Liverpool academy. “We are indeed very excited that McMahon has chosen our school to kickstart the training session. With football being one of the most popular sports, there’s a vast reservoir of talent in the country that needs to be groomed at the right age and in the right manner. We not only aim to nurture footballing talent, we also intend to ensure that these boys have the opportunity to play the game professionally.”
Former Maharashtra football player Ganesh Rao believes that the arrival of the European clubs will definitely give the game in India a shot in the arm. “The focus of these clubs may be commercial, but their presence could have a positive effect on how we play football. It is for us to make the most of the opportunity that is being offered to us,” he says.
Former international Ranjit Thapa, vice captain of the Indian team that defeated Japan in 1976 and a midfielder who helped Gorkha Brigade lifted the 1966 Durand Cup, says: “It is a happy augury that these clubs are coming. Bu they are only targeting children of affluent families at the moment. These boys tend to leave the game when it clashes with their career goals.”
Thapa points out that real soccer talent comes from lower middle class and poor families. “You can now see that phenomenon in cricket as well. These are the boys who should be groomed. They are hungry for success,” he adds.
Thapa also laments that former Indian players are being ignored and there is no place for them in the new set-up despite the fact that they have vast experience.
“We do not have local heroes. So these children grow up watching and admiring the exploits of the European and Latin American football players. We need to create our own stars for India to climb to the next level,” he adds.
All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das says: “It is too premature to say that India is becoming a football hub. But there is no doubt it has the potential to be one. Even FIFA is taking a lot of interest.”
“Barcelona may have come here primarily to boost the sale of its merchandise but, in the process, they would certainly help the cause of Indian children who love football,” says Das.
He adds: “We should set up a very good youth development programme, create strong infrastructure and market the game professionally. Though we don’t have the kind of money that BCCI has, with the support of Reliance we will be able to improve our resources”.
To cash in on the current football boom, India would have to play its cards with care and organise more soccer tournaments round the year, says DSA vice president N.K. Bhatia. “Such tournaments will attract both crowds, sponsors and television audiences. Money is an important factor these days,” he adds.
Bhatia refers to another aspect of the unfolding phenomenon. “It isn’t just European clubs that are coming to India. Players from Nigeria, Brazil and the Central Asian countries are turning out for Indian clubs because there is good money in the game today,” he says.
Last year, Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan club paid Nigerian player Odafe Okolie a whopping Rs 1.8 crore. “Even the Delhi clubs are now paying their players monthly salaries,” Bhatia points out.
DK Bose, general secretary of Delhi-based Hindustan Football Club, says: “These foreign clubs are testing the waters in India because it is the biggest untapped football market along with China.”
A soccer league on the lines of IPL will take place in Kolkata later this year. Many big names of world soccer, men who have been part of World Cup-winning national squads, will be auctioned to teams based in six cities/towns of West Bengal.
The remaining slots in the various teams of the tournament will be filled up by local footballers who aren’t playing in the I-League (see accompanying article for details).
“With all these exciting things happening, the future of Indian football cannot be bad at all. India is certainly on the way to becoming a football hub of some consequence,” says Bose.
“The future of football appears to be very good but there is a need to link the game to our schools,” says Rupesh Dev, who is a physical trainer at Pathways International School. He recently took the boys of his school team to Austria, an outing that he believes will stand them in good stead.
Emphasising the growing attraction of football among youngsters, Dev says: “There are around 1000 boys in our school and 170 of them play football seriously. In contrast, no more than 70 children have taken up cricket.”
Indeed, it isn’t uncommon these days to see boys walk around in Messi, Rooney, Xavi, Lampard, Villa or Gerrard T-shirts. The European leagues are avidly lapped by Indian youngsters who want to make a mark in sport.
The mushrooming of football academies is only a logical offshoot of the new-found passion for the game among India’s younger generation of sports lovers.
Says 62-year-old Quddoos, who enjoys nothing more than coaching wannabe footballers: “At these academies, aspiring Indian footballers are bound to receive professional training. In the long run, soccer in this country will benefit.”