Thursday, June 10, 2010

World Cup to sell football in cricket-mad India

Football is slowly taking off in cricket-mad India and the World Cup is set to give the game another lift in the country of a billion-plus people.

Global football bosses view the South Asian giant as a new frontier; the game is popular in a few pockets in the south and east, but in most of the country is eclipsed by the national obsession with batting and bowling.

There are signs that football is growing in popularity, however, and not just in city parks and the countryside, where kick-arounds can often be glimpsed alongside ubiquitous cricket.

Bill Adams, a former community coach in England, started a training centre in New Delhi 12 years ago with just eight children and now counts about 200 enthusiastic wannabees in his Super Soccer Academy at weekends.

"We never expected the kind of response that we got from children across various age groups," he says. "There is huge interest among the kids and most of them aspire to be professionals when they grow up."

Adams is also a regular at various city schools, which have started taking a special interest in the game, viewing it as a more physically demanding activity for students and one involving little or no extra cost.

Football's growing popularity is reflected in TV viewing figures which have risen steadily in the past few years, according to a recent report by TAM Media Research.

"Among non-cricket sports, football is at number one in India," says the report. "There are 83 million football viewers in the country and 55 percent of them watch domestic leagues.

"The game has attracted 60 percent more audiences in the last five years and three times the number of advertisers since 2005."

The numbers are encouraging considering India's national team is placed a lowly 133 in the international rankings, sandwiched between Fiji and Bermuda.

The team has at least mounted a string of promising performances of late and qualified to play in the Asian Cup in Qatar in 2011 after a gap of 24 years.

The news media report on the national team in major tournaments and follow the English Premier League with interest, although nothing compares to cricket and its biggest stars -- revered as celebrities and demi-gods.

The recent signing of attacker Sunil Chhetri by the Kansas City Wizards in the US Major League Soccer (MLS) has also raised hopes that other players will break through internationally.

"People outside are taking Indian players seriously now," says Abhishek Yadav, who plays for Mumbai FC in the I-League, India's top-tier professional league, which was launched in 2007.

"The Indian team has been performing well in the last two to three years. Most of our players have the requisite qualities. It is just that we lack international exposure."

Asia is a key market for the world's biggest clubs, with English Premier League sides regularly undertaking summer promotional tours to the far-eastern nations of China, Japan and Singapore.

India also had a taste of European football when Kolkata hosted top German side Bayern Munich in 2008 for a farewell match for former German international goalkeeper Oliver Kahn.

In another sign of the potential, Manchester United has opened a branded sports bar in Mumbai.

The game's bosses at FIFA have repeatedly stressed that football's future is in the east.

"The time to start is now," FIFA chief Sepp Blatter said on his first official visit to India in 2008. "I want to wake the sleeping giant."

A growing economy, burgeoning middle classes with disposable income and leisure time, and increasing numbers of households with televisions all add up to making the underdeveloped Indian market highly promising.

"FIFA and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) are very keen to bring India in the Asian mainstream," Jaydeep Basu, a noted football critic, told AFP.

"India are placed 19 in Asia and sidelined at the moment. But if they can manage to be among the top-10, they can start playing against countries like Japan and South Korea.

"Once this happens, it will bring a lot of revenue for everyone. More big-pocket sponsors will be willing to pump in money into the game in the form of club, title and FIFA sponsorship."

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