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Indians catch up with soccer mania

Television viewership in India is expected to scale up during the World Cup as people wait for the tournament to kick off in Germany.

india Updated: May 19, 2006 14:43 IST

Every four years when the World Cup comes around, India puts aside its obsession with cricket to follow the football spectacle like the rest of the universe.

Television viewership in India for past World Cups has been known to surpass that of football powerhouses like England, Brazil and Argentina even though the country has never figured in the premier event.

It will be no different when the 2006 edition kicks off in Germany on June 9. India will turn into a nation of couch potatoes and spend sleepless nights for a month cheering their favourite teams.

All matches will be telecast live by ESPN-Star Sports, the TV stations that currently bring European football to Indian drawing rooms every week with so much success that alternative commentary in the native Hindi language is offered to viewers.

This year the late evening timing of the World Cup will clash with India's cricket series in the West Indies - to be broadcast on a rival network - but that will only add to the excitement.

Delhi-based student Venayak Gupta, 15, a self-confessed football addict, says he has his summer holidays planned out.

"Life will begin in the evening," he said excitedly. "Imagine Dravid, Lara, Beckham, Ronaldinho all in one evening. Can't ask for more."

Newspapers are carrying full-page supplements on the World Cup analysing each team's chances with profiles of star players. Not surprisingly, Brazil, England and France are getting the biggest attention.

Sporting heroes have joined the fun. Discarded India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly is rooting for Brazil while Davis Cup star and doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi wants England to win.

Footballers, however, lament the poor health of the sport in the country, which is languishing at 117 in the FIFA rankings and 22nd in Asia.

It was not always so bad. India was the first Asian nation to make the Olympic semi-finals at Melbourne in 1956 and won the Asian Games gold medal twice in 1951 and 1962.

It may have been just the tonic football needed to catch the imagination of the country's youth. Official apathy, however, denied the sport its due even as cricket made giant strides.

Baichung Bhutia, the only Indian to play professional football in England - he spent three years with third division club Bury - blames lack of planning for the current mess.

"We have no infrastructures at all at the grassroots level," he said recently. "There is no system in this country to encourage young boys to play football. There is no professionalism."

Football in India is largely confined to the eastern metropolis of Kolkata and the southern states of Goa and Kerala although Mumbai club Mahindra United won this year's national league.

All, however, is not lost. More people watch the league than domestic cricket and private football academies are mushrooming across the country to nurture young talent.

"Watching European clubs on television may have shown up our poor standard, but it has also fuelled interest in the game in schools," said Novy Kapadia, one of India's best-known football journalists.

"More young people are taking to the game. It is a good sign but we are still a long way off from qualifying for the World Cup."