Fanatical fans keep eyes on smaller ball

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Just about anywhere you go in the world during the next month, it will be difficult to escape the World Cup. The finals of football?s global tournament every four years dominate the media and captivate young and old from Seoul to Buenos Aires.

But if you really are determined to find a relatively football-free zone, then boarding a flight to India is not a bad idea.

The country in general has never really fallen for the game?s charms, and during June and July its populace will be much more preoccupied with the fortunes of the Indian cricket team during its four-Test tour of the West Indies.

The British empire was fervent and remarkably effective in spreading
the gospel of its favourite sports around the world, with football the notable example. But the gift that India really took to its heart from its imperial power was cricket, and the nation has found little room for football. Indeed, cricket is one of the few sporting activities in which the country has shone at international level, with only more minor sports such as field hockey, tennis and shooting bringing Indian athletes glory on the global stage.

So, as India is increasingly developing as both an economic and political power, one sphere in which it is most unlikely to gain any recognition is on the football field.

Long popular in Europe and Latin America, football has made inroads into every major country except for India, including China and the US, which are established World Cup finalists, and Japan, a former host of the global tournament.

Currently ranked at 117th in the world, India?s national team have never played in the World Cup finals and do not expect to in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the first World Cup they even tried to qualify for was as recent as 1986.

The team suffered a string of defeats in the qualifying matches for this year?s World Cup, which kicks off in Germany on Friday, losing to Japan, Oman and Singapore, although they did manage to win one of the two games against Singapore.

Football has failed to penetrate
India for a legion of reasons, but
the long shadow cast by cricket over every other sport, the absence of grassroots infrastructure and insufficient resources to promote the game are largely responsible for holding back
its popularity.

?Football is overwhelmed by cricket. It?s a poor second to cricket,? says Ramachandra Guha, a historian who has written extensively on cricket. ?It?s impossible to compete with cricket in terms of sponsorship.?

In cricket-mad India, the sport is followed with religious fervour. A conflict between Greg Chappell, the Australian coach of the Indian cricket team, and former captain Sourav Ganguly, dominated national headlines for weeks last autumn.

Leading cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Mahendra Singh Dhoni enjoy the popularity of film stars, while matches against rival neighbour Pakistan incite the
sort of patriotism normally associated with wartime.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India is exceedingly rich, the recipient of about two-thirds of global cricketing revenues. In stark contrast, the All-India Football Federation is under-funded and criticised for being poorly managed, as well as run by politicians rather than professionals.

?The All-India Football Federation has done little to crack the country,? says Novy Kapadia, an Indian sports journalist and football expert. ?The game isn?t marketed properly.?

To be fair, there are patches of India that have served as traditional strongholds for the game. In Goa, West Bengal, Kerala and states in the north-east of the country, the game is played and followed avidly.

The long-standing British presence in West Bengal and the Portugese influence in Goa account for football?s
popularity in those states, while large Christian populations in Kerala and the north-east, which are perhaps more in tune with international sporting trends, have fuelled interest in the sport.

Experts say football will fail to spread beyond these regions without more professionally managed league teams, as well as a grassroots infrastructure encouraging football among the country?s youth.

A project overseen by the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Football Confederation, called ?Vision India? and launched early last year, hopes to change that.

Apart from the two or three most successful teams, such as Calcutta-based East Bengal and Mumbai?s
Mahindra United, the clubs that
make up the first division of the
10-team National Football League are in dire need of better management
and funding.

?The teams are run in a very amateurish way. Many teams don?t have full-time staff, their own training grounds and professional coaches,? says Shaji Prabhakaran, director of Vision India. ?They don?t invest in youth, support staff, infrastructure or community development.?

He says the Vision India project would provide technical advice to the football clubs and also help them tap additional local sources of funding
and sponsorship.

Another thrust of the initiative is encouraging the game at youth level. Prabhakaran says the group will work in partnership with schools and clubs to organise training programmes and educate coaches.

Coaching in India is also viewed as woefully inadequate. Englishman Bill Adams said he was appalled at the standard of football coaching when he arrived in India in the early 1990s.

?Coaching was terrible,? he says. ?Coaches don?t know how to coach football and they don?t know how to play football. They learned their football in the 1950s.?

Adams, who is accredited by the English Football Association to teach the game to youngsters, went on to set up the Super Soccer Academy in New Delhi in 1998. Starting with 15 children, the academy now teaches the sport to 400 youngsters every week.

Despite the increased interest in the game, Adams believes it will be a long time before India emerges as a global force in football.

?There?s not the level of support, there?s not the level of cash, and there isn?t a support system,? he says. ?There?s too much of a gap between India and the rest of the world.?

Perhaps the reason for India?s lack of interest in football is much simpler altogether. Historian Guha opines that interest in the sport began declining in the early 1980s once live television broadcasts of World Cup matches began and Indians got a glimpse of just how well other international teams played the game.?

?We saw how lousy our own players were compared with Brazil,? says Guha. ?We saw Indians couldn?t compete internationally so transferred our
devotion to Maradona.?

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