Mumbai: Football is slowly but surely getting traction in India and Barcelona see the world’s second most populous nation as a key part of their global expansion plans, the Spanish side’s Asia Pacific director general Jordi Camps has told Reuters.
Cricket-mad India, home to 1.3 billion people, is a massive underachiever as far as football is concerned and the country has yet to make a single appearance at the World Cup finals.
Access to better coaching has long been highlighted as one of the key elements needed for Indian football to develop, though hosting the Fifa under-17 World Cup in 2017 could prove to be a turning point in attracting youngsters to the game who would otherwise be heading to the local cricket academy.
A number of European clubs have come to India over the last few years to set up academies on a franchise basis in a bid to establish a foothold in a potentially huge market.
Barcelona have opened three centres in the country and Camps said they could prove a win-win for the La Liga side and India.
“The growth of the Indian Super League and the success of the under-17 World Cup held in India in 2017 have been absolutely vital for the development of the sport in the country," he said in an interview.
“Not only did it garner global coverage and engage young people of India, it also helped develop infrastructure, upskill personnel and transfer knowledge to a range of governmental organisations and businesses to help stage major footballing events.
“We feel that we have a part to play in the growth of football in the country too."
After China embarked on a multi-billion dollar mission to become a football superpower by 2050, India followed suit with its own plan to raise its status in the game to match its burgeoning economic power.
Described as a sleeping giant by former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, India launched a programme in 2016 to engage more than 11 million children in football-related activities in the lead up to hosting the U-17 World Cup.
Barcelona have been in India with the Barca Academy since 2013 and say they have trained more than 25,000 young footballers through various programmes.
It has been rated as the top academy in India by the All India Football Federation.
“There seems to be a real interest and investment happening in grassroots football – with the AIFF grassroots program launch in October 2012," Camps said. “This isn’t quite as ambitious as the growth proposed by President Xi (Jinping) in China, for example—but it’s certainly a strong initiative for increasing the popularity of the sport."