BY C. RAJSHEKHAR RAO
NEW DELHI — When sports fans in India talk about a Premier League igniting their passion, they’re not referring to English soccer.
They’re talking about cricket.
The Indian Premier League dwarfs every other sports event on the sub-continent — from attendance to TV ratings, from cash to player salaries.
The game is followed with almost religious fervor, particularly the smash-and-bash Twenty20 version, to the detriment of most other sports.
It wasn’t long ago that the administrators who ran domestic soccer needed handouts from the Board of Control for Cricket in India for survival. Where else could that happen?
But things are slowly changing. The global game is catching on. There is burgeoning interest, particularly in the major cities, although these soccer fans primarily have their eye on faraway foreign leagues.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter once described India as soccer’s “sleeping giant,” recognizing the possibilities for growth in this country of 1.2 billion.
For now, soccer players in India are considered the poor cousins of glamorous cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli, who have the marketing power to sell anything from real estate to motor bikes to cola.
The success of the IPL has only widened the divide. The top Indian cricketers easily earn more than $2 million a season from the Twenty20 league, on top of their regular contracts and match fees from the national cricketboard.
The top Indian soccer players earn $100,000 to $150,000 a season from the professional I-League, although the league’s foreign players can make double that amount.
Former Tottenham midfielder Rohan Ricketts and Australian A-League player Carlos Hernandez are among the new signings, but don’t have the profile that will lure fans from watching cricket or international soccer. Most Indian soccer fans are more familiar with Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi than anyone in the local league.
Cable television has played a big part in this development, bringing world-class soccer into Indian lounges and making the domestic competition look as if it’s played in slow motion.
Morning news programs frequently offer analysis of overnight matches from Europe, albeit with home-grown commentators.
The infrequent international games featuring the Indian team or exhibitions involving popular foreign teams pull packed houses, but club games rarely attract big crowds.
The top Indian names and a host of imports have failed to generate great interest in six editions of the professional I-League. And the interest of clubs like Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea seems to be in tapping the fan base in India rather than unearthing local talent.
The hurdles for developing soccer start right at the foundations, in terms of buildings and competition.
All stadiums in the country are either owned by state or local municipal corporations, leaving soccer officials at the mercy of unwieldy bureaucracies and often leading to neglected facilities.
Englishman Bob Houghton coached India’s national soccer team for five years. He often spoke about the need for a national soccer center. He was forced to hold off-shore camps in Dubai to prepare his squad for matches.
“You’re talking about a country that has zero football infrastructure,” he said near the end of his tenure in 2011. “We have, I think, one stadium in the whole of the country that meets the criteria to host a World Cup qualifier and that’s in Chennai, where there’s no football. It’s an athletics stadium.”
“You can force clubs to start working with under-19s, under-17s and under-14s. That just needs the political will to start. But you can’t build infrastructure overnight, it takes a definite commitment,” Houghton said.
Blatter understood the problem and asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for land and infrastructure during a visit last year when he spoke of better prospects for the game.
“We’re carefully following the development of football in India. A lot of centers are coming up but a lot still needs to be done if football has to be a top game in the country,” Blatter said. “I know you have another game (cricket) that is at the top, but there is surely place for two games up there. I want to establish football in this country.”
Cricket officials tried to give soccer a boost in 2009 when the BCCI announced a $5 million handout for the All Indian Football Federation, but eventually held back half the amount because they were not sure of how the money was being used. That is the kind of image that the national soccer federation needs to change.
India’s soccer team is ranked below No. 160, and the euphoria of qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup has started to wane. The team is looking for more challenges under Dutch coach Wim Koevermans.
The failure to raise standards isn’t simply because of a lack of development programs or exposure for the game. The inconsistent scheduling of matches contributes to the problem, with the AIFF failing to organize enough games on FIFA match days.
“It’s very difficult to create an international calendar for the team,” Kovermans said. “It’s tough to play an international match on every (FIFA) date and it also becomes tough for the clubs to release players. So we have to have a good plan and make use of any opportunity that we get to play international matches.”
The smattering of players from Nigeria, Brazil and other countries might have improved I-League standards. But they haven’t really generated enough local interest to offset the problems they cause in the supply line for the national team. That’s especially the case with forwards, since those spots are mostly taken by foreign players in the league.
Still, there’s money coming into the game, and plenty of intent to develop it. Sponsorship for the national federation has increased after the $140 million contract signed with IMG-Reliance in 2010 for 15 years. But a franchise-based pro league in the eastern state of West Bengal, which featured semi-retired stars like Argentina striker Hernan Crespo and Italy’s World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, failed to take off.
Indian football administrators are said to be creating a more robust franchise-based competition, based on the cash-rich IPL cricket format, in the hope of attracting some local fans from European soccer.
Unless that happens, soccer will never be able to catch cricket in India.