Why India is still not a destination for top European clubs’ pre-season tours

  • Dhiman Sarkar, Hindustan Times, Kolkata
  • Updated: Jul 28, 2016 10:48 IST
Big clubs like Manchester United have a huge following in Asia, but are yet to play pre-season games in India as it would not be commercially viable. (REUTERS)

When it comes to increasing their reach, and the revenue that comes with such ventures, China and the USA have the status of most favoured nation for top football clubs. At the time of writing this, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain were in the USA and the biggest football teams from Manchester have just finished a tour of China along with Borussia Dortmund.

Not everything went swimmingly on the trip to China which ended with a Manchester derby in Beijing being cancelled due to rain and a media interaction with Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho being shifted because the room was hot and stuffy. Both Mourinho and Pep Guardiola spoke of the difficulty of training in humid conditions and the need to avoid injuries going into the final stretch of preparations for the Premier League which starts on August 13. But such hints from managers are unlikely to deter these clubs from seeking to renew association with China come another pre-season. 

For years, English football clubs have also been to east Asia on such trips. India though doesn’t seem to be on the radar. In 2011, Bayern Munich came to New Delhi to play a testimonial for Bhaichung Bhutia to a partially-filled Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. Thereafter, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim came for a training stint but that’s about it. Bayern have said they are focusing on the American and Chinese markets now. 

Ever since they joined Atletico de Kolkata, there has been talk of Atletico Madrid coming to India for one or more games but going into the third season of the Indian Super League (ISL) that doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon. “Blame it on the ground,” said an official with the Kolkata franchise. 

Requesting anonymity because he isn’t authorised to speak to the media, the official said Atletico Madrid were all set to come in 2015, play in Kolkata on way to a pre-season tour of China but the Salt Lake stadium turf was being relaid. This year too, the stadium wouldn’t have been available because of work for the 2017 under-17 World Cup. “But trust me, Atletico Madrid are keen on visiting Kolkata and for them it would be to support Atletico de Kolkata. So they wouldn’t be only looking at making the venture commercially successful.” 

Speaking to HT here on Wednesday, Dwight Yorke said with the right homework, there’s no reason why India couldn’t be a prime destination for top football clubs seeking a global reach. Manchester United alone have 35 million supporters in India, said Yorke, who was in Kolkata to launch a product for one of the club’s sponsors. In 2008, during Manchester United’s a tour of South Africa, David Gill, the former chief executive, had said the club would visit India in the next few years. Manchester United have sent former players such as Quinton Fortune, Dennis Irwin, Louis Saha, Yorke and others on PR trips but there’s no news of even a plan to visit India with the first team. 

That’s perhaps because the market in India isn’t ready yet, said Bhaswar Goswami, executive director Celebrity Management Group, the company that brought Lionel Messi’s Argentina to play a friendly in Kolkata against Venezuela in 2011. “It’s not true that clubs don’t want to come to India, they do, they are really keen. Every year, I get five to seven offers but the kind of money involved can’t be recovered,” Goswami on Wednesday. 

To elucidate his point, Goswami said a top European club would ask for around $3.5 million (approximately R 23.4 crore) as appearance money. “Add to that travel costs, hotels and you are looking at $4 million (R 26.8 crore) or more to organise a tour that could comprise one or two matches. India is still some 10-12 years away from getting there,” he said. 

Tickets for the Manchester derby in Beijing were priced between 45 pounds (R 3980 approximately) and 568 pounds (R 50, 147 approximately), according to reports on the internet. 

“It cost me around R 20 crore to organize the Argentina-Venezuela friendly. When I was making a pitch, I was ridiculed by friends heading marketing departments in various corporate giants. That it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world’s best player in his prime wasn’t saleable enough as a business proposition. They rightly pointed out that if, say R 10 crore, was invested in the IPL for instance, it would get guaranteed television for 14 games and that would add value to their product,” said Goswami. 

The other problem is that since the football audience in India isn’t as mature as, say, that of Japan and China, only teams that have big stars would be a draw in India now. “But to get them, you will have pay more. In Japan, for instance, West Ham could be a draw because the football audience there is a lot more evolved,” he said. 

For football to become more popular and the market stronger, India will have to do well in the sport. For all the cricket they played it was only after 1983 that sponsors found the sport a financially viable proposition in India, said Goswami. He is, however, setting great store by the 2017 under-17 World Cup that India will host next year. 

“This will be our first World Cup team ever in football. We need to be competitive. This being a Fifa event, I am sure they will create a lot of noise around it and that will help football in India,” he said. 

Goswami has now shifted operations to Europe and other markets and said he is planning a friendly with Portugal and either The Netherlands or Belgium this year. But because the climate would be right next year, he is keen on doing an international friendly in India. “I may lose money but help grow the market,” he said. 

The good thing, according to Goswami, is that the young in middle-class India isn’t sold on cricket in the way their parents were. And they are not far from being decision makers in society, he said.

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