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Goal is India

As Europe reaches out for fresh markets, we seem to be gaining slowly but surely, feel Dhiman Sarkar & Somshuvra Laha. The desi connect

sports Updated: Dec 28, 2011 01:42 IST

Trust Bernie Ecclestone to pull no punches. "I think Europe is finished. It'll be a good place for tourism but little else. Europe is a thing of the past," he said last month.

Over eight decades on this planet and the owner of Formula One, Ecclestone certainly isn't thin on experience. The comment about Europe was made in the context of seeking new destinations for his sport. Like Formula One, football too is searching for new markets. Just as F1 races in Asia increased from one in 1998 to seven in 2011, so have the footprints of top football clubs.

Seeking new markets

India, Japan, USA and Russia are areas of focus for Bayern Munich, a club with more European Cups (now the Champions League) than Manchester United. In collaboration with their shareholders, Audi and Adidas, Bayern will bring their first team to New Delhi next month straight from a winter camp in Doha. It will carry forward a trend that had Blackburn Rovers play Pune FC and Argentina meet Venezuela in Kolkata. Both happened last September.

"A club with a history of legends like Franz Beckenbauer, Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and world-class stars like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben or Thomas Mueller (all of whom are expected in India for the friendly against the national team in New Delhi on January 10) in its squad would like to give something to a country where football lacks a professional structure," Martin Haegele, Bayern's international affairs director, told HT on e-mail.

In May 2008, Haegele said, Bayern experienced the passion of Indian football fans when former Germany skipper Oliver Kahn played his final club match at a packed Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata. Bayern, he said, are also about making friends and to that end, January's visit continues a relationship that started three-and-half years ago.

Discover India
At this point, the rupee may be plunging deeper than the neckline of the latest Hindi film starlet but possibly football's big boys are seeing this as a temporary phenomenon. They would have PriceWaterhouseCoopers' backing on this. According to a report on December 13 by the global consultancy company, India would generate annual revenue of $2 billion by 2015 through sport. This would be the maximum after Brazil among BRIC countries (a group of four emerging nations including Russia and China) and at 5 per cent, the projected growth will be higher than the worldwide growth. Gate sales, sponsorship, media rights and merchandising are the four revenue streams, according to the report.

That seems like reason enough for top European clubs to build bridges with the world's second-most populated country. And since relationships with football clubs are often based on blind, unshakeable faith -"Supporting a football team is not a question of expediency, of convenience," said Colin Shindler in his brilliant book Manchester United ruined my life - what better way than start with children.

Liverpool opened football schools in New Delhi last August and recently Inter Milan joined Tata Tea on a talent-hunt programme. In November, with CEO David Gill in attendance, Manchester United announced a non-residential football school for children between eight and 17 in Mumbai. One month before that the FC Bayern Youth Cup, an U-16 tournament, was launched in New Delhi.

"Some 155 million people watched football while cricket got 176 million. That makes football the second-most popular sport in India. I often tell people that because of our sheer numbers we have almost as many followers of the English Premier League as England," said Bhaswar Goswami, executive director of the Kolkata-based event management company Celebrity Management Group which got Lionel Messi and Argentina here. Goswami has promised more because "people want to see the best in the world play in front of their eyes".

Learning opportunity
A trend this is for sure but what's in it for Indian football? To that, East Bengal coach Trevor James Morgan had a somewhat unusual take. "Maybe it will make the world realise that football exists in India. I knew about that because I had a chance to see East Bengal play the Asean Cup (which they won) in 2003."

Haegele said being able to watch Robben, Ribery, (Toni) Kroos, Schweinsteiger among others is a great gift to India's next football generation. Nice starting point that, felt Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa's development officer in south Asia.

"Let's accept that they are the best in this business. And that gives India an opportunity to learn," said Prabhakaran. "But the onus is on those on the Indian side to ensure that such projects are wedded to the long-term development of the game in India. That's something I've missed so far. For now it seems only like an attempt to catch eyeballs."

According to Karim Bencherifa, coach of I-League champions Salgaocar, "This is great for the popularity of the game but I wish it happened after India did its bit to improve its infrastructure and make its league stronger."

The twain can meet
The USA is proof that regular summer visits by Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern or Barcelona isn't injurious to the health of the domestic game. The Major League Soccer, a 19-team competition which kicked off in 1996 (the year India started its national league), has grown stronger with average attendance up from last year for almost all teams. Almost 5.5 million people attended MLS games last season with 17,872 being the average attendance.

On November 21, the South-East Asian Games final between Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries used to international clubs travelling to their shores, had a sellout crowd of 88,000 in Jakarta. And though the numbers were significantly less because the Ambedkar Stadium doesn't hold that many, India's Nehru Cup triumphs in 2007 and 09 were played to packed houses.

So, the twain can coexist.

First Published: Dec 28, 2011 00:09 IST