x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Don't underestimate India's passion for football

After weeks of coverage of the Lalit Modi controversy, the Indian media has finally found something else to get its teeth into: the World Cup.

After weeks of coverage of the Lalit Modi controversy, the Indian media has finally found something else to get its teeth into: the World Cup. It is nice to see another sport in the news. Outsiders commonly think that India does not care about football, but the public here has been lapping up the world's biggest tournament. The main newspapers have all sent correspondents to South Africa, which is not always the case for non-cricket events. The World Cup will get plenty of space over the next month, despite there being cricket action as India take part in the Asia Cup. The country's footballing interest cannot be attributed to the All India Football Federation, but to other factors like television, corporate participation and school-level tournaments which attract significant participation in the major cities. The English Premier League has undoubtedly contributed to the interest levels. Thanks to the Premier League, players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Michael Ballack, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard have become household names. The Spanish Primera Liga has thrown up heroes like Lionel Messi. Even as sale of official merchandise flourishes in the Indian market; shirts bearing famous football names help the street merchants to rake in money. Regular television coverage is a fine catalyst to deeper interest in the game. The Indian viewership for the 2002 World Cup was 34 million, and the 2006 event was watched by 50 million. This year's action will almost certainly top that. Some people watch the games in their living rooms, and restaurants and pubs are buzzing with football-mad customers late into the night. The irony is, India has yet to figure in a World Cup. India could have been part of the action in 1950 in Brazil, but their request to play barefoot was turned down by the governing body. India was also impressive at the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games, where they won gold. There has not been much development since then. There is plenty of enthusiasm. though. Mumbai's inter-school football season, which is close at hand, will witness 2,000 matches played over several age groups. Despite there being much emphasis on academics, and many of these football children playing for fun, there are some who have been encouraged by their parents to play it seriously and view it as a career option. It was amusing to read about a football-crazy father naming his son Carlos because he looked like the feisty Brazilian whom he idolised. That the child went on to play and perform well for his school last year must have given the father a special thrill. Banking too much on prowess shown in inter-school football is a dangerous path. Although there is huge interest at that level, it is not quite the same at the college level. However, the number of special camps is increasing and it is not rare to read about clinics conducted by coaches of Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in India. One shudders to think what happens to talented kids who don't have the financial resources to avail of special training. India needs to ensure there is a steady flow of talent coming through the junior ranks to produce the next Bhaichung Bhutia. He was the first Indian player to play in Europe, for the English club Bury in 1999, or Sunil Chettri, who currently plays in the United States for Kansas City Wizards. The national team is No 133 in the Fifa rankings, but that does not do justice to the kind of interest and participation the sport has in India. More spectators watch inter-club football than a Ranji Trophy match, even when Sachin Tendulkar is playing. Football would beat cricket in this particular sphere even during the days when cricket was not beamed often on television. Interest during a Mohun Bagan v East Bengal football battle can reach dangerous proportions in Kolkata because of the numbers in the stands and the fierce rivalry between the teams. Corporate support is the oxygen which football needs in India and that is why the Mahindra Group management, one of India's most successful businesses, received criticism for disbanding their Mahindra United outfit from the domestic I-League, which was not all that short of either support or following. Tournaments for people from the corporate world have brought about an increase in awareness. Sports promoter Sanjiv Saran Mehra's first tournament for corporate activity had 24 teams in 2002. Now, the figure has grown to 82. Some of India's best known businessmen are in South Africa to watch the extravaganza. Doubtless, the Rainbow Nation will provide them with food for thought not only in terms of organisational skills but football craft too. Interest alone cannot help India make the international cut, however. A thorough and systematic talent hunt programme and restructuring of the national league and the national's team's annual calendar could help. So would a set of dedicated administrators to put funds to better use. sports@thenational.ae