Football gaining ground in cricket-crazy India

July 22, 2011

In a country where cricket is so ingrained in the social fabric that it dwarfs every other sport and most other topics of conversation, Aayushman Chaturvedi made a decision that was almost unthinkable for his parents.

He chose football.

And if the mushrooming number of local academies emerging are any indication, Chaturvedi is not the only the Indian schoolboy who dreams of playing football in Europe rather than trying to break into the Twenty20 cricket Indian Premier League.

Even former India footballer Anadi Barua, who runs a bustling academy on the outskirts of New Delhi, is surprised by the recent trend.

''It is amazing to see the craze, focus and ambition of youngsters,'' Barua said. ''I am surprised to see that parents are so happy to see their kids play football and not cricket.''

Football in India lacks glamor and money compared with cricket. Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are celebrities across this country of almost 1.2 billion people and have become multimillionaires through cricket.

Leading cricket players can earn $1 million for a six-week season in the IPL - on top of their national or provincial contracts, match fees and endorsements - while only the very top players in football's long-winding I-League can make anywhere near $100,000 per season. Little wonder there's millions of cricket players around the country and the number of footballers can be measured in the thousands.

As the IPL cricket competition continues to expand and splurge money to enhance its appeal, two major football clubs that were part of the I-League - Mahindras and JCT - have folded in the last year.

Such was the disparity in 2009 that the Board of Control for Cricket in India felt obliged to give the All India Football Federation a $5 million grant to help keep it afloat.

Yet despite the yawning wealth divide, football remains popular - a Nielsen global online survey last year indicated 47 percent of Indians claimed to be football fans.

''To translate love for the game into prospects, it is important to give exposure to young players. To watch European league matches on the television is one thing and playing the game altogether different,'' Barua said.

India won gold medals in football at the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games and also finished fourth at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. But the standard of the game slipped due to lack of infrastructure and bad administration.

Things started changing in the new Millennium. India qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup by winning a competition for second-tier nations, and is involved in home-and-away matches against United Arab Emirates over the next week in the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

Along with the increasing broadcasts of European football, money is also starting to flow into Indian football.

IMG-Reliance - a partnership between IMG Worldwide and Indian company Reliance Industries Ltd. - signed a 15-year, $140-million deal last year for all commercial rights to the game in the country, aiming to promote and market football from the grassroots level to the top.

Among Barua's 150 trainees at the academy in New Delhi's satellite town of Noida is 16-year-old Aviraj Singh, who was selected for a national schools team to play against a youth team from Premier League giant Arsenal later this year.

Other boys at the academy are going further to get experience against the next generation of Premier League players.

Chaturvedi is one of them. He registered for a shot at a junior trial match at Chelsea and said going to London was like winning the lottery, even if he had to persuade his parents to cover his travel expenses and stay with his grandmother while he was there.

''My parents wanted to push me into cricket since there is more scope for that in India,'' the 16-year-old Chaturvedi said. ''But I always loved football and that is what I always watch on television and on Youtube.

''I perused the opportunity through the internet and was thrilled when I got to appear in the under-18 trials.''

Chaturvedi said he hasn't received a call back or any official feedback from the club, ''but I am determined to play professional football some day, be it in Europe or in India.''

He learned a lot about his football shortcomings on his trip to England, so it was a valuable exercise.

''I need to improve my physical fitness and physique,'' said Chaturvedi, who is expected to debut in the Delhi league next season. ''My game also needs to be faster.''

There's also a generation of parents who're bullish about giving their kids the right kind of opportunities.

Roshan Tamang, a 39-year-old media professional, sends his nine-year-old son Rushank to an academy run by Indian star Bhaichung Bhutia. He said he wouldn't hesitate to pay for tours abroad in a bid to improve his son's game.

''I played inter-varsity football but did not get the basics right in time,'' Tamang said. ''Things are different now and I am sure there will be bustling football leagues in the country some years from now.''

Opinions vary as to why India is suddenly interested again in the so-called world game, but Barua has a few theories.

''Parents want to ensure children are off video games, television and the internet. They see great potential for a child's physical development in football,'' he said. ''In fact, I feel technology has contributed in two ways: While their parents got them here to ensure they were not addicted to technology, when kids go back to it in their spare time, they use it to further their knowledge of football.''

But while the game is growing here now, Barua knows that only a solid professional domestic league will help India climb the world football rankings.

''That is where the future has to be,'' he said.