Small club shows the way for Indian football revolution
When Diego Maradona visited India in 2008, it was estimated that more than 50,000 fans lined the roads from Kolkata's airport to his hotel to welcome him in the early hours of the morning.
Around 100,000 of them were present a day later as he laid the foundation stone of a football school and 130,000 crammed into one of the city's stadiums for an exhibition game featuring the Argentine legend, now the Al Wasl coach, that evening.
A cricketer can only dream of such adulation in India, yet common narratives portray the country as a one-sport nation, where the masses have little time for any sport other than the leisurely game of leather and willow.
Baichung Bhutia, described as "God's gift to Indian football" by contemporaries, knows otherwise, and the former India captain has put his hard-earned money where his heart is.
Finding "like-minded" partners in the Dubai-based firm FidelisWorld and the music composer Shankar Mahadevan, Bhutia launched his dream project - United Sikkim Football Club.
In 14 months, the club have risen up the popularity charts, qualified for the top division of Indian football, the I-League, and are poised to launch a revolution in the country's antiquated and amateurish approach to the game.
"I've always nurtured this dream of owning a football club one day," Bhutia said. "I was struggling but after meeting like-minded people in Dubai, the dream got fulfilled and now I want my team to be an example in terms of infrastructure and youth development.
"We will play a big role in setting an example to the other clubs in India who do not have any infrastructure, no training facilities or youth development programmes. "We want to set that example to all the clubs in India, be a model club and also start doing well on the ground and off the field as well."
Football has always had a strong following in India and it has been growing in recent years.
According to estimates, the sport has a viewership of 158 million, which is only 20 million fewer than that of cricket. A study conducted by TAM Media Research between 2005 and 2009 showed India's football audience had increased by 60 per cent in that five-year period.
A survey by Nielsen in 2010 found that 47 per cent of India's 1.2 billion people describe themselves as football fans.
There is no dearth of numbers at the turnstiles as well. Domestic football matches consistently draw higher crowds than the first-class cricket matches.
The Kolkata derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal regularly attracts more than 50,000 to the stadiums.
If an international star is on view, those numbers can swell beyond 120,000, like they did for Maradona and Oliver Kahn's farewell in 2008. The game's appeal reaches across social strata, as well.
Sourav Ganguly, the former cricket captain, is an avid football fan, as is the country's tennis No 1, Leander Paes.
Sunil Gavaskar, the batting great, supports King's XI Punjab in the Indian Premier League because, he said, they wear the "same colour" as the English club Arsenal.
The Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan was supporting Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and after their defeat, he tweeted: "Germany my team lost … feel bad taking my lil ones to matches where our team loses …"
Unfortunately, for Khan and millions of other Indians, they have never had the joy of supporting their national team at football's premier event.
India should have been at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, but withdrew due to the cost of travel and internal wrangling. It has been a downhill journey since and the team currently languishes at No 165 in the Fifa rankings, below the likes of Yemen and Hong Kong.
The "Vision India" report of 2004 by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was scathing in its assessment of the way football was administered in the country.
Clubs lacked basic amenities and their coaches did not have the necessary qualifications. Financial stability was rare, as were youth development programmes.
Anand Krishnan, the executive chairman of FidelisWorld, became aware of these issues at a dinner he hosted for the India team, who were training in Dubai ahead of the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
"Baichung clearly felt there is a long way football can go in India," Krishnan said.
"There are lots of foreign players who are coming in and the federation is also making changes. And I said, 'Why don't we float a team? We will start from scratch. We don't want any baggage.'
"He had something called Sikkim United Football Club. It was a regional team and doing stuff for youngsters.
"So I said: 'Let's do this properly. Let's get into second division and within no time we'll qualify if we do everything right' and the United Sikkim Football Club came into being in the January of 2011."
Two Indian internationals, Renedy Singh and Sushil Kumar Singh, immediately joined the team, though they would be playing in the second division.
The club signed the Liberian international Johnny Menyongar along with Namibia's Quinton Jacobs, who had a trial at Manchester United in 1998 and had offers from Ajax and Werder Bremen.
The quality of the squad earned United Sikkim an instant ticket to the I-League Division II.
After a failed bid to qualify in 2011, the club, with the Belgian Philippe De Ridder as coach, topped the division this year to get a promotion to the I-League. United met Mohammedan Sporting in the final game of Division II on April 17 in Sikkim's capital Gangtok and the day was declared a holiday by the state government.
The state's chief minister was among the 24,000 fans who had packed the stadium.
The Sikkim government has allotted 30 acres (12 hectares) of land to the club and Bhutia said a "world-class stadium and academy" are taking shape there.
He said football talent is plentiful in the north-east of the country, "and we have to give them proper direction".
He added: "I hope United Sikkim can serve the purpose. We will have an excellent youth academy and in the next four, five years we will be among the best in the country."
According to Krishnan, the club's scouts will be travelling across the country, recruiting players for their academy, where as much emphasis will be given to education as football.
"We are in talks with three of the biggest giants in Europe, who want to come and deal with us," Krishnan said. "We have also tied up with a world-renowned education institution because I believe in having an education institution together with the academy, where both can coexist."
Having spent more than 32 years in the banking and private equity industry, including 20 years at JP Morgan in the US, Krishnan wants to bring the American sports model to India football.
"It's going to be like Major League Baseball," he said. "That's where I bring all these principles from, or the NBA or the NFL. We have already put that in and that will take it forward.
"We are passionate about sports, but I also am very passionate about how a company should be run. It's proper governance. We are bringing that into football. We've done that at United Sikkim and that's why we are so successful."
The AFC and Fifa, football's world governing body, have been pushing for such a professional management of football in India for years and pouring money into the development of football infrastructure. Their efforts are gradually bearing fruits.
India is bidding for the 2017 Under 17 World Cup and the 2015 Club World Cup, and should they win the hosting rights, the country's football chief Praful Patel expects a race "to develop world-class infrastructure in a 'time-bomb' fashion."
Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, is hoping that would be the case. Visiting India in March, he met Manmohan Singh, the country's prime minister, and Pratibha Patil, the president, and discussed possibilities of hosting those tournaments. "To wake up a sleeping giant you need several alarm clocks," Blatter said.
"We have set up several alarm clocks to monitor them. I am in my 30th year in Fifa and 13th year as the president. My tenure ends in 2015 but I won't leave Fifa until I see the sport established in the subcontinent of India."
Updated: May 4, 2012 04:00 AM