Football fever in India too

Indian workers pack footballs ahead of the World Cup Football 2014 at a manufacturing unit in Jalandhar.

India is not known for its footballing prowess and is ranked a lowly 154. However, India will be present in Brazil during the World Cup, which starts on June 13.

Footballs made in Punjab will be kicked around in Brazil's stadiums during the tournament. Even though cricket is the dominant sport in India, there are still millions following the game and this World Cup has whipped up interest in many parts of India.

In 2010, a staggering 700 million people watched the Spain-Holland final on television. This is a 10th of the estimated global population of seven billion.

Of these, 155 million (22 per cent) were from India, according to statistics provided by media research agency TAM India.

As sports-fanatic people, Indians, like Singaporeans, go crazy over football every four years. Scenes of football-crazed fans in Kerala painting their faces in the colours of Brazil or Argentina, and clashes in Kolkata about the superiority of Roberto Carlos over David Beckham, or teens sporting multinational jerseys along Clarke Quay and Boat Quay and even the heartland community centres in Jurong or Tampines, are common.

Up to July 13, the world does not just play football, it watches it, bets on it, argues about it and spends money on it. It will be one of those rare occasions when cricket will be on the back burner.

Through FIFA-approved vendor brands, manufacturers from Ludhiana and Jalandhar have exported sports products to Brazil. For instance, Jalandhar based Rattan Brothers has supplied 80,000 football balls through UK-based Hy-Pro that has the official FIFA licence for supplying the product for the World Cup this year.

Rattan Brothers director (exports) Tilak Khinder told The Economic Times: "We have supplied 80,000 football balls through Hy-Pro International for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Moreover, this being a World Cup year, we have seen a 20 per cent jump in orders for balls from other regions such as Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and France, among others."

In addition, Meerut-based National Sports and other Indian manufacturers have supplied training and practice kits such as free-kick dummies, corner flags, cone markers and linesmen's flags.

Popular Indian micro-blogging site Twitter, seeking to tap into the craze, has created official hashtags - #WorldCup and #Brazil2014 - to provide real-time updates on all the action for the 64 matches.

Through these hashtags, people can join conversations on Twitter and follow the action closely, the website said in a statement. According to Twitter, more than 300 of the players from the 32 competing nations are on Twitter, with representatives of all the competing teams having a presence on the platform.

A big chunk of the popularity of football in India, before the advent of the Internet, was fuelled by television.

Although colour transmission began in India with the Asian Games in November 1982, the exploits of Italy's Paolo Rossi in the 1982 World Cup final in July, were viewed in black and white.

Veteran Kochin-based sports journalist Babu Mather, who was involved in managing the now-defunct Kerala-based professional football clubs, FC Kochin and Viva Kerala, says the popularity of football in India is not limited to cheering for Brazil and Argentina in the World Cup. "Yes, it is still mostly television-led. Local football fanatics have shifted allegiance to cheering for their favourite strikers, midfielders and defenders in the popular English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga, Italy's Serie A, the French Ligue 1 and Spain's La Liga," he says.

But popular Indian television commentator Novy Kapadia, author of the recently-released Football Fanatic's Essential Guide, says Indians identify with Brazilians for both cultural and sporting reasons.

"Both Brazil and Argentina play skilful, individualistic football - with lots of short passes and flair - the style of football that Indians like to follow, especially in Bengal. And, historically, the World Cup triumph of the 1958 Brazilian team was seen as the first by a coloured team."

Indian footballing legend Shyam Thapa, who scored for Mohun Bagan against New York Cosmos when Pele visited Kolkata with the team in the 1970s, told The Hindustan Times that the Brazil of 2014 is a young side that wouldn't like to be saddled with the baggage of history. "Also, with an exciting talent like Neymar, playing in home conditions, they can win this World Cup."

Like Singapore, the popularity of the EPL has brought in new Indian fans for the England team. As Mr Kapadia notes there are other emotional reasons to back certain teams. "Bayern Munich toured India to play Bhaichung Bhutia's farewell match. So, there is an attraction towards Germany," he says.

Boost from Bollywood stars

Even Bollywood mega-stars like John Abraham believes football can make refreshingly new headway in cricket-crazy India. Take the upcoming ISL (Indian Football League), where a host of celebrities, sportsmen and business honchos have bought a stake and they include Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham and Atletico Madrid, the famous Spanish club. Actor-producer Abraham, who already co-owns a team (Delhi Waveriders) in the Hockey India League, has joined hands with an I-League football squad (Shillong Lajong FC) to buy the Guwahati football franchise for the ISL. He says: "Football has been part of my DNA ever since I was a child. I was a good player, and once even aspired to play for my country. Also, I believe, as a country, we need to promote sports and fitness, and football gives me a chance to do both."

Mr Akilesh Dutt, a 22-year-old Mumbai financial management student at Nanyang Technological University, candidly says Indian football doesn't have him hooked. "One follows international leagues because they are marketed well. Their ads invoke passion and triumph. Most of us would love for an Indian football league to be on par or even better than the cricket league. But will it ever happen?" he says pragmatically.

President of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Praful Patel believes the ISL in September 2014, will usher in a new, dynamic era for Indian football.

Highlighting India's successful bid to host the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup, he wrote on the AIFF's website: "Dynamic days are ahead for Indian football. We will be playing host to the 2017 Under-17 FIFA World Cup but exploding into the moment need to be sustained."

He also said the I-League winners will have a chance to play against the best of the world should India win the rights to host the Club World Cup in the near future.

"Keeping it in mind, we are now bidding for the two successive editions of the Club World Cup in 2017 and 2018. If we are successful, the respective I-League champions of the two editions will get a chance to rub shoulders with the best of the world," he added.

Then India can really hold its head high that it is playing a real central role in global sports than just making balls and free-kick dummies.


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