x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

India football fans gripped by potential appearance of Lionel Messi

The anticipated announcement of Lionel Messi in an Argentina squad to play Venezuela in Kolkata next month is expected to unleash what Indians are calling "Messi mania".

The frenzy over a potential appearance by Lionel Messi, centre, in India shows the growing demand for football in the country.
The frenzy over a potential appearance by Lionel Messi, centre, in India shows the growing demand for football in the country.

KOLKATA // The anticipated announcement of Lionel Messi in an Argentina squad to play Venezuela in an international friendly in Kolkata next month is expected to unleash what Indians are calling "Messi mania".

More than 15,000 tickets have already been sold online for the Fifa-sanctioned September 2 match at the 100,000-capacity Salt Lake Stadium, but organisers are predicting a surge of sales in coming days when the squads are announced.

Football frenzies have struck in Kolkata before, most notably when the Brazilian great Pele turned out for the New York Cosmos in a friendly against the Kolkata club Mohan Bagan in 1977 and when the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn played for Bayern Munich against Bagan in 2008.

Utpal Ganguly, a football administrator in the city, said this game is more important than those featuring Pele and Kahn.

"Messi and Carlos Tevez are in the prime of their careers whereas Pele and Kahn played here during their twilight years," Ganguly said. "I'm sure the crowd response will pick up once the list of players is announced."

But some like 63-year-old football fan Binay Mukherjee are not sure whether the big names will play here.

"It would be great to watch Messi and Tevez, but a doubt has cropped up among fans here on whether they will be released by their respective clubs," Mukherjee said.

Another worry is the steep prices of tickets.

Suvadeep Ghosh, an 18-year-old engineering student, says young people may not be able to afford the tickets.

"It would be a great experience for me to see Messi and Tevez. But I am not sure whether my desire would be fulfilled as the cost of tickets is pretty high," Ghosh said.

The minimum cost of tickets is 500 rupees (Dh40) for registered football players of the city and 1,200 rupees (Dh97) for others.

The match comes at a time when All India Football Federation, the national football body, is hoping to give an impetus to the world's most popular game in a country with a population of 1.2 billion where cricket and hockey reigns.

Last year, the AIFF signed a 15-year, US$140 million deal commercial deal with IMG-Reliance, which will market football in India at all levels.