Indifferent India tunes out Asian Cup

Described by FIFA President Sepp Blatter as a ‘sleeping giant’ of world football, India, with is population of 1.2 billion, has no shortage of potential player

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While the cream of Asian football fights for glory in the region’s biggest tournament, the indifference of Indian broadcasters to the Asian Cup is a major setback to those hoping to grow the game in the world’s second-most populous country.

Described by FIFA President Sepp Blatter as a “sleeping giant” of world football, India, with is population of 1.2 billion, has no shortage of potential players.

However, the national side is languishing at a worst-ever ranking of 171 and the cricket-obsessed country has shown few signs of waking from its soccer slumber.

That is not to say there is no interest in the game.

There is huge appetite for England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, while the franchise-based Indian Super League, with its cast of celebrity owners, foreign managers and a sprinkling of high-profile players, was very well received.

The ISL, which had its inaugural season last year, reached the television screens of 170 million Indians in its first week and many hoped its success would be a platform to build on.

However, with India failing to qualify for the showpiece Asian Cup, currently being held in Australia this month, the momentum has been lost.

Subrata Dutta, vice president of the All India Football Federation, told Reuters that the tournament held little interest for broadcasters without an Indian presence.

“The relevance is not there for the channels,” he said. “The Asian Cup is now of little importance to us because India are not playing.”

While Rupert Murdoch’s Star Sports packaged the ISL with the right mix of promotion and presentation to grab viewers, the tournament also packed out stadiums and enjoyed a strong presence on social media.

The ISL semi-final second leg between FC Goa and Atletico de Kolkata last month was played at a sold-out 27,000-capacity Fatorda Stadium in Goa.

In stark contrast, last weekend’s domestic football league opener at the same stadium sold 125 tickets.

India qualified for the last edition of the Asian Cup in Qatar four years ago by virtue of winning the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament organised to allow lower-ranked countries play in continental competition.

The games were shown live and while India lost all their group matches they earned high praise for the fight they showed against higher-ranked Asian competition.

Instead of building on that, however, the national team’s performances have nosedived and broadcasters showed no interest in buying television rights for this year’s Asian Cup, instead hedging on the safety of cricket and Australian Open tennis.

“It is a setback, there’s no doubt about it,” Dutta added.

“For the commercialization of the game and for funds to support development, the visibility is of prime importance.

“The performance and participation of the national team in international tournaments is very important for the development and promotion of the game.”

Contrasting fortunes

While India’s fortunes in the world’s most popular sport continue to spiral downward, neighbouring China is beginning to show green shoots of recovery after years of underachievement and a string of match-fixing scandals plaguing the game.

The Chinese Super League is attracting top players and managers from around the world while spectators are flocking back to stadiums.

China’s national side, which went into decline after the 2002 World Cup, have performed above expectations in Australia, winning all three of their group matches before falling to the hosts in the quarter-finals.

“China played the World Cup a few years back, so they have risen to a certain standard and it’s not too difficult to get to that standard,” Dutta added. “We are targeting that level through our youth and grassroots development.”

Eager to shake India out of its malaise, FIFA has put a development strategy in place, part of which will see the country host the under-17 World Cup in 2017, which they hope will improve the infrastructure and develop youth football.

Some in India blame clubs for the lack of focus on grassroots development.

“We have missed the bus several times,” football writer Jaydeep Basu said. “It’s the clubs who are responsible for this state.

“From (David) Beckham to (Lionel) Messi, it’s always been the clubs who have unearthed talent and brought up players from the age groups.

“The major clubs in India have always neglected this aspect.”

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