Time to awaken the ‘sleeping giants’ in the soccer field

Time to awaken the ‘sleeping giants’ in the soccer field
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First Published: Wed, Nov 12 2008. 11 58 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Nov 12 2008. 11 58 PM IST
Zurich: The fascination with India as a rising marketplace for global sports slowed, but did not halt, with the global financial crisis.
On 10 November, while India’s cricketers were wrapping up their emphatic Test series win over Australia in Nagpur, 150 of the most entrepreneurial people in soccer were being told in Zurich that if they ignore the subcontinent, they risk missing the boat in the developing world.
“Cricket and Bollywood have taken off with a $2 billion (Rs9,760 crore) television-friendly version of their game,” said Max van den Doel, a speaker at the conference of the International Football Arena (IFA). “The NBA (National Basketball Association) has a 10-year plan to make basketball the No. 2 sport in India, and the fact that American basketball has such a plan already in place shows that soccer cannot afford to ignore the potential there.”
However, whether now is the time to discuss expanding into new areas is a debate without end. The organizers of IFA, which explores fertile ground between the sport and the business of soccer, planned the 10 November conference long before banks started collapsing—and with them the loans underpinning many of the world’s soccer clubs.
This financial uncertainty inevitably fogs all issues. And, in a twist to the discussion about whether European clubs should be helping India to build a soccer infrastructure, Amit Bhatia, whose father-in-law part-owns another London club, Queens Park Rangers, said he would be surprised if more wealthy Indians did not buy English clubs. “The potential is there,” he said. “And now is the time.”
But Bhatia admitted he sees no young Indian talent to nurture as the iconic figures of the future. The childhood dream, he knows, is to follow cricket’s Sachin Tendulkaror Sourav Gangulyto riches. Ganguly was apparently a gifted soccer player and even preferred that game before turning into one of cricket’s most acclaimed batsmen, up to his final test this week.
Meanwhile, soccer, introduced into India by the British in the 1870s, is the poor relation. Alan Durante, a businessman who has searched for the Indian soccer hero for 25 years as chairman of Mahindra United in Mumbai, said no Indian league team makes one rupee out of soccer.
So the sport, trailing behind cricket that has hit a gold mine by reinventing itself for TV and even behind basketball in overseas investment, has no concerted plan to build itself up.
No help seems to be coming from any of Fifa’s richer nations either.
On stage, we heard older administrators, who talked of building slowly, slowly. And we heard brash, young Indians saying they want Bollywood in soccer, and they want it now.
The call to help, or explore India came at the time when England’s elite are reconsidering how rich, or how vulnerable they really are. Sepp Blatter, Fifa (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) president, has urged, again and again, that the time has come to waken the “sleeping giants” of China and India. With burgeoning economies, and almost half the world’s population between them, they might have to help themselves.
India’s soccer is not in the best of health. Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, minister for information and broadcasting who has been the president of the All India Football Association for the past 20 years, is ill. No heir apparent has been nominated.
The audience at the conference heard a young, female TV sports presenter, Mayanti Langer, say: “Who are we? We are young India, we love Bollywood, we are flashy, we love our glamour.”
“And we want it now.”
She had flown half way across the world to tell the old fogies that.
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First Published: Wed, Nov 12 2008. 11 58 PM IST