x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Cup is half empty in India

Interest in English football here in India mushroomed with the advent of satellite television. But while it has been possible to see up to five Premier League matches a weekend for 15 years now, telecast of the FA Cup is a more recent phenomenon.

By the time Manchester City and Stoke City kick off the 130th FA Cup final at Wembley tomorrow, the attention of most Indian sport lovers might be on an Indian Premier League game between the Mumbai Indians, who have one foot in the semi-final, and the already eliminated Deccan Chargers.

That says a lot about both the declining stature of the competition and also the lack of support in the country for the two teams playing in the final of the oldest football tournament in the world.

Had the game featured Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool - who have lifted the trophy 17 times between them in the last two decades - it would have been a different story. India fans are not too different from their glory-hunting cousins elsewhere in Asia, as a walk down any busy urban street will tell you.

You will see quite a few Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas replica shirts alongside Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard ones. City and Stoke jerseys? As likely as a standing ovation for Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho inside Barcelona's Camp Nou.

Interest in English football here in India mushroomed with the advent of satellite television. But while it has been possible to see up to five Premier League matches a weekend for 15 years now, telecast of the FA Cup is a more recent phenomenon.

By the time it came to Indian screens, United's decision to give the competition a miss at the turn of the millennium had already dealt a severe blow to its prestige.

In a new world that prioritises Champions League qualification above all else, the showpiece event in England's football calendar had become a consolation trophy, or a bonus for those that have already sealed a place in the top four.

City need not worry though. With a Champions League place, or at least a spot in the qualifying round - the likes of Bayern Munich and Benfica lie in wait - nailed down for next season, it will not be long before India's cities see a few sky blue shirts.

As long as they win a trophy or two, there will be enough people to clamber aboard the bandwagon. Just do not expect them to have even heard of Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee or any of the other heroes of Joe Mercer's 1960s side.

We have already seen it happen with Chelsea. As recently as a decade ago, you would have struggled to find more than a couple of hundred fans, and most of them would have had some sort of connection with west London.

Then, along came Roman Abramovich, shortly followed by Mourinho. The trophies came too, and with them the fans. These days, only United and Arsenal enjoy greater support.

The reverse has also happened. Around the time the league was first shown in India, Newcastle United were the most exciting team around and the bar-code shirt became a popular fashion accessory. Then, sexy football left Tyneside and the replica shirts, too, disappeared.

Of course, not all Indian football fans are seagulls in the wake of a fishing trawler. Some take it very seriously indeed. A young friend of mine, who has never been to Stamford Bridge [yet], is as committed to the cause as anyone you would find in the Shed End.

Unlike the sheep who think football began with Mourinho, he is well aware of the Ted Drake years, Tommy Docherty, Peter Osgood, Kerry Dixon and the late, lamented Matthew Harding.

Both FA Cup finalists are unpopular with the average Indian fan for different reasons. Stoke, largely because of the vilification campaign launched by the likes of Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez, and City because they are seen as arrivistes buying success.

As with most stereotypes, these too are laughable. Stoke do not do tiki-taka, but they are a strong, robust side who have done wonderfully to finish mid-table two seasons in a row. In a recent and richly deserved win against Arsenal, they committed just seven fouls in 90 minutes. Thuggery? Only if you have never watched a Chopper Harris or a Graeme Souness.

City's 1970s decline mirrored that of Indian football - in 1970, one team won the European Cup Winners' Cup, and the other took the bronze medal at the Asian Games - but they have remained one of England's best-supported clubs, even in the dark days of League One. As for spending money, it is what every club aspiring to success has always done. Bill Shankly spent £37,500 (Dh223,755) on Ian St John half a century ago to set in motion the chain of events that would take Liverpool from second division also-rans to a team regularly near the top of the Premier League.

Claudio Ranieri and Mourinho spent hundreds of millions to assemble the Chelsea team that would win a first Championship in 50 years.

Sir Alex Ferguson was not using Monopoly money when he bought Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Veron.

City, poised to be the next Chelsea, should rejoice. The sniping usually starts when the competition is afraid.