New Delhi: 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% of them watch domestic leagues.
“The game has attracted 60% 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.”