DAVIDS, SORIN, INAMOTO AND THE FUTURE OF INDIAN SOCCER

It's just not cricket, Edgar.

It is argued that the globalisation of football has only resulted in sky-high ticket prices, over inflated transfer fees and unedifying characters within the game. The boom of the game in the last twenty years has been immense with games easily accessible across the globe, news being instantly broken on your favourite club, merchandise - mostly counterfeit - being sold in the local market. Football has broken all barriers and markets and has managed to entice Asia especially since the rapid growth of television coverage of the Premier League.

But it is in India where the game is now slowly catching on and gaining recognition as a big sport. Behind cricket and wrestling, football has become the third most watched sport in the country and as data suggests, it is only going to continue to rise with India’s football audience increasing by 60% in a five year span in the past decade.

The coverage and presentation of the Premier League has been a mesmerising attraction for a young and learning Indian crowd. Packed stadia, boisterous fans, high tempo games and some of the best on the continent ply their trade on the English top flight. The imported product bears a similar resemblance to what the Indians experience on a weekly basis at their local cricket ground.

A company like Venky’s, for instance, would have turned away from an opportunity to purchase a football club five years ago, merely illustrating the allure and glamour attached to the Premier League. Like the economy in India, football is on the up and India have caught the bug.

However, despite its boom in popularity, unlike other countries which has seen its representatives hone their trade in the Premier League like Japan and South Korea, India has failed to capitalise on trying to create and develop a national side capable of competing on the international scene. India are currently ranked 147 in the FIFA World Rankings, the 27th best in the Asian confederation. A country of 1.2bn has only seen three players in its history play football professionally abroad.

The latest has been Sunil Chhetri, who became the first Indian to play in the MLS. According to Chhetri, India needs to plough money into its infrastructure, look to attract coaches and develop training grounds for youngsters to blossom. Having toured across Portugal and Cyprus, Chhetri saw how modern and technologically driven the game is in Europe and has strongly urged the authorities to take a leaf out of the European’s book, otherwise risking further regression in developing the game.

While the facilities in India are something left to be desired, it is the organisation, or lack of, which needs improvement and strong leadership. The Indian Football Association have failed to grasp what needs doing to further the game. Games continue to be re-scheduled, venues are double booked and as a result, attendances have fallen. While the Indians crave packed stadia and the feeling of a close community in the stands like in the Premier League, the empty stadia is a symbol of their lack of love and visual reminder that the game is losing money on a regular basis. Rarely is a game attended by more than 500 people.

In itself, stadia is a huge problem for teams. With various clubs within a state sharing a ground to play and to practise on, there is little or no maintenance over the pitch and the stands. Some grounds are used as cricket pitches during the off season adding to the madness.

The media in India seem to be less bothered about the domestic game and more so about Sachin Tendulkar and his cohorts (rightly so) and the European football scene. The lack of interest can be illustrated by the infrequently updated tables and fixture list and little advertising for televised games. Indeed, local televised games are seldom shown whilst ESPN, the biggest sports station in India, show more Premier League games than a viewer in the UK would expect to see.

In an effort to help resuscitate the Indian game, the Asian Football Confederation’s recommended re-strategising, meaning new streamlined administration within the clubs and the authoritive bodies thus there is a clear vision as to how clubs will develop grassroots football, drawing an influence from how football in Japan has grown organically.

Youth football is an area of little expertise with coaches using methods from professional football on children.  Children have found sessions too intense and driven to competition rather than fine tuning skills to encourage them to make the step up into club football. With cricket also producing stars and the opportunity to earn lucrative contracts, football has lost out on generations based on the inability to train children at a young age.

In an attempt to try and kick-start development and regional grassroots football in India, the Celebrity Management Group (CMG) have joined forces with the IFA to launch Premier League Soccer (PLS).  It has taken inspiration from the successful Indian Premier League Twenty 20, whereby it is a franchise driven tournament among six clubs from Bengal.

The PLS is expected to start in January for seven weeks until March. To qualify as a franchise licence holder, limited companies must have a net worth of Rs 10 crore (£1.4m). Bhaswar Goswami, the executive director of the league in a press release claimed that there are currently eight interested parties with many local entrepreneurs wanting to chance their hand in becoming football club owners.

The six franchise towns of Kolkata, Howrah, Barasat, Asansol, Midnapore and Siliguri will compete to bid for ‘one icon player and three quality overseas players.’ An ‘icon player’ in this instance is someone who has represented their country and has an international reputation. Each club can have to a maximum of 25 players with a maximum of three overseas players, one overseas player of Asian origin, minimum five local players, minimum six players who are under-21 and a maximum of 10 from anywhere in India.

Names such as former AC Milan and Ajax midfielder Edgar Davids, former Arsenal and Fulham midfielder Junichi Inamoto and former Villarreal defender Juan Pablo Sorin have agreed terms according to the local press. Phillippe Troussier, the former Japan manager has also been linked with taking over a franchise. To maintain the integrity and professionalism of the tournament and its franchises, coaches must have a UEFA/FIFA A Licence.

With bidding starting later this month, there is huge anticipation for the league, especially with the names of yesteryear being showcased in front of 20,000 fans, according to the organisers, as well as Bollywood stars and cricket players being involved actively in the operations of the club.

For now, India is looking to learn from past mistakes in an attempt to break through the international stage. Qatar went through a process of building a reputation based on their domestic football, which ultimately became a failure. As a result, Quatari and other Middle Eastern business empires have gone onto owning several clubs in Europe like Man City, PSG and Malaga with the aim of turning them into powerhouses, and will be hosting the World Cup in 2022, albeit gaining the rights in controversial fashion. With FIFA feeling incredibly philanthropic, could we one day see India hosting a World Cup too?

You can follow Suhail on Twitter @SuhailSeedat

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