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Playing ball in India

india Updated: May 25, 2008 02:14 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times
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For one day this week, an upscale Kolkata hotel will host a unique, starry mix of international footballers and cricketers. As the Kolkata team in the Indian Premier League readies for its last home match in a tournament that’s trying to connect cricket and the cities, Bayern Munich will check in.

It will be a major step for getting India into the loop of European football’s attempt at building global fandoms. Playing Mohun Bagan on Tuesday evening would be the first serious overture from a leading football brand to an India that, at 60, is young and getting richer.

However bizarre the idea seemed when it was first publicly mooted, the reality of IPL is on us now. In two days, so will the reality of the legendary Oliver Kahn turning out at a venue he possibly didn’t know existed till recently: the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

“I was mentally prepared for Berlin as my last match. Obviously I am intrigued at playing at such a fabulous setting in front of such a large crowd,” the granite faced mountain of a goalkeeper told Bayern Munich TV.

A combination of a truncated European club schedule and persistent probing by Bengal Peerless led to Bayern Munich’s Kolkata stopover on this south Asia tour which also featured a match against the Indonesian national team (won 5-1 by Bayern) and a three-day holiday in Bali.

“We are very proud to be the first top European club to play in India. A partnership and friendship between Bayern and the huge Indian football family is very important and we are ready to develop football in India,” Karl Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern’s executive board and a former West Germany captain, said.

European line-up in the country

Bayern aren’t the only one speaking this language, though they definitely are the first to walk the talk. From Real Madrid to Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, India seems to be the latest stop in European club football’s expansion drive. Football appeals globally, cable football more so and hence there is a captive audience.

It is an audience with buying power and one whose following of Indian football tends to zero. Just what the doctor ordered for megabuck European clubs and leagues seeking more eyeballs.

Save for the season-ending holiday in the Caribbean, the focus for them is exclusively on Asia, Australia and the US. The reason: population, real possibilities of pecuniary benefits and the fact that large swathes of these regions don’t play football well enough. It is no coincidence that the Premier League’s proposal of a 39th round (teams playing in neutral venues) involves countries without a strong indigenous football culture.

As Rummenigge and Everton’s deputy CEO Robert Elstone said, the first step is to build a relationship. Hence the accent on youth development. Bayern are figuring out how to help Peerless for a youth academy in Burdwan. Their first India fan shop at Bengal Peerless’ mall (slated to open later this year) will be another step in this equation of commerce and connect with the substantial Indian audience.

For Everton too, selling merchandise is the first step in a possible business relationship which, according to Elstone, is why they are in India. “All this is an investment for eventual corporate involvement with the club,” he said.

Elstone could have been speaking for any club. Hidestoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono were used to hawk souvenirs and boost membership at Bologna and Feyenoord; Junichi Inamoto helped Fulham earn $3.7 million; and Real Madrid returned from China richer by $12 million after signing David Beckham.

The business view from India

But why would Indian companies want to be associated with a European club? Elstone pointed out that, “our main sponsor (Chang beer) is from Thailand”. Chang has a predecessor in Keijan, a mobile phone company in China. It didn’t sell products in England, but paid $3.2 million to put its name on Everton jerseys after Chinese midfielder Li Tie joined The Toffees.

Some day, Elstone hopes that will happen in India too. Already Tata Tea’s tie-up with Arsenal for “healthy awakening of mind, body and soul of our country’s youth”, according to the company’s managing director Percy Siganporia, is being seen as beyond mere corporate social responsibility.

On the shirt front, too, there is hope. “There is a significant market for international replica and shirts of big European clubs. Especially EPL teams. At Rs 2700, we also stock Bayern match jerseys. Lifestyle tees and polos cost between Rs 700 and Rs 1000. I can’t give you figures but during the football season we sell a few thousand replicas every month,” Andreas Gellmer, who heads Adidas here, told Hindustan Times.

And the Bayern visit will only help. “It has happened that way in many countries. Fans, especially children, need proximity with the clubs they support and such a visit takes that desire to the next level,” Gellner said.

Bengal Peerless managing director Kumar Shankar Bagchi is clear about why his company is involved in this megabuck project (Bayern, mind you, aren’t coming gratis). “We want to create a shift in corporate culture, a shift away from cricket. We hope more and more corporates are involved in football,” he said while exploring possibilities of trying to get Real Madrid next year.

That would be music to the ears of fat cat football clubs wanting to get fatter.