Being ‘the global game’ it is sometimes surprising why there is no mention of India. They have a hard working, extremely large population in a country that has been expanding through its industrial age. When I visit, I see international jerseys everywhere, so it’s quite true that soccer fans are in number in India. I went to large viewing parties to see Manchester United play at my cousin’s college. I used to go running in the mornings along Juhu beach on the Indian Ocean edge of Maharashtra, and saw small and large sided beach soccer games every time I went. Just like in Brazil or other Latin American countries, you can see youth playing with whatever spherical objects they can find. The love of the game is there, so the question is why isn’t the team there? To say India is not a sporting nation would be a flaw, as they have been a long-standing dominant force in cricket. If British brought cricket to India, why did soccer not bleed into Indian culture in the same way other colonies leeched the sport from their parent countries?
The problem lies in the lack of infrastructure – especially at the youth levels. While I did see many children kicking a ball around and playing small sided games there was never a sense of much organization. They play for fun and as the children get older and older, a lot of the athletes will migrate towards cricket. There is a dearth of good soccer fields, while fine cricket pitches are peppered throughout Mumbai, and I’m sure this rings true for the rest of India. At the end of the day, this makes sense as Indians are crazy about cricket. The national team is one of the proudest icons of India, and the money they make is extraordinary. So it is not uncommon to see the better athletes being funneled into the sport which seems more within reach and it seen on a daily basis. Being a country with a very large impoverished population and a government filled with many corrupt official, the investment is surely going to have to come from the outside, though that may not be too far off.
Manchester United and Liverpool, among other clubs, have decided to take a gamble and reach out to talent in India by offering academies. Man U opened their academy in Delhi and the club is really bringing soccer excitement to the area. Not only is the club providing coaching to the youth by their club’s own youth developers, they also are providing teaching to Indian coaches to help them further the game. Liverpool FC has also made forays into the subcontinent recently opening up their own center in Pune. The facility features pitches, classrooms, a gym, cafeteria, lecture halls, and medical facilities. They too are supplying their own academy coaches seeking to find gems in the Indian talent pool. This is a good venture for both sides, as Liverpool is able to garner many more soccer fans in a cricket crazed country, while the Indian youth are being exposed to top level coaching. India themselves are also investing with the hiring of Dutch coach Robert Baan as the nation’s first technical director. He was previously the director in the Netherlands and Australia and is ambitious, trying to propel India to a future World Cup berth. He is opening residential academies under the All India Football Federation (AIFF), providing free education alongside soccer training. It might be a while until we see notable Indian players pop up, but it is good to see the grassroots foundation has been laid so these players at least have a chance.
In the cricket world, India recently introduced a league to feed the yearning for more cricket – The Indian Premier League (IPL). Its season last less than two months bringing in all the worlds cricket superstars while maintaining a focus on Indian cricket (22/33 of each team’s players must be of Indian nationality). The tournament has brought in immense amounts of money with PepsiCo being a title sponsor. It is this kind of league that the soccer needs in India, and it is now becoming a reality. Billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Rupert Murdoch have joined forces to launch a league to mirror the IPL. This league has also gathered big name sponsors and aims to inspire the youth as well as gain more of an overall soccer following on the national level. Stars (albeit former) such as Thierry Henry and Michael Owen are being courted to play alongside India’s own national stars. Such a league might be the missing piece alongside the new academies to finally bring India to the world soccer stage.