Page last updated at 07:36 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

Football seeks a toehold in India

By Delnaaz Irani
BBC World News, Shillong

Football action from a Shillong Lajong game
Shillong LaJong are the pride of football fans in India's north east

On a typical day in Mawkasiang village on the outskirts of Shillong, life is pretty peaceful.

Farmers spend their days working the fields, while their wives tend to household duties in straw huts.

But not on match day.

This seemingly peaceful village goes from ordinary shades of green to electric red and white, the colours of their home football team Shillong Lajong (which means "our own").

The villagers in Mawkasiang are so passionate about football they all pool their farmer salaries together and pitch in for a bus to take them to the Nehru stadium in Shillong's city centre to watch the game.

We hitch a ride on the bus and it's an exhilarating experience.

There are two dozen supporters crammed in, and not enough seats to go around.

Many are happy standing or hanging out the side of the bus waving their red and white flags furiously out the window.

Love of football

Among the most vociferous fans on the bus is 24-year old farmer Banstar Nongbri.

"I love LaJong," says Banstar, a diehard fan who's been following the club since he was a child.

Diehard Shillong Lajong fan Banstar Nongbri
Lajong fan Banstar Nongbri has been following the club since he was a child

"I've never missed a game on home soil, except once, because I didn't have enough money to travel."

Shillong LaJong are the pride of India's north east.

They are the only team from the region to have ever qualified for the premier league of Indian football.

In a region which has suffered economically because of a long and bloody history of violence, militancy and separatism, the people's love for football is a unifying factor.

And the success of Shillong's football team is a massive feat celebrated in almost every nook and cranny.

Sea of people

From the countryside to the main centre of town, a few kilometres away, there is feet-stomping, fist-thumping merriment.

The busload of fans chant team anthems and familiar footy rhymes over and over again, pausing briefly only to catch their breath.

The ruckus alarms those in the villages and markets we pass by, but even they give their silent nod of approval.

Shillong's football team supportes in the Nehru Stadium
The Shillong support is made up of young and old fans

When we get to the city, a sea of people stretch out on either side of the long, narrow walkway leading up to the gates of Nehru Stadium.

There are so many supporters, young and old, that it feels like almost the entire township of Shillong has turned out for the game.

And inside the stadium, it's a colourful carnival.

Almost every stand in the 25,000-capacity stadium is packed.

In some stands, fans have come well prepared, accompanied with percussion instruments and are banging away at a drum kit.

Other supporters cheer their team on, with all their vocal might.

Company backing

It is this sort of support that has seen this small club secure some big sponsors.

"It [qualifying for the Indian Premier League] has opened a window of opportunity for a great number of companies to really endorse an entity in the North Eastern region," says Larsing Sawyamhe, general secretary of Shillong LaJong football club.

"I think that is what really made companies like Nokia, who are our principal sponsors, Kingfisher, McDowells and of course Adidas, who are our merchandising sponsor, come in and support the club."

Even so, the number of sponsors in football fades in comparison to cricket.

Larsing Sawyamhe, general secretary of Shillong LaJong football club
Larsing Sawyamhe says Shillong LaJong has attracted many sponsors

According to sports writer Ayaz Menon, football in India is valued at around $65m (£101m), as opposed to cricket, which is well over a billion dollar business.

"In terms of just viewership, television or even live, Indian football doesn't have too much of a viewership, says Mr Menon.

"Unfortunately it is languishing. Nobody is watching the I-League on television, I mean, there are measly numbers.

"While a heck of a lot more people are watching the English Premier League and other tournaments of that calibre and standard."

And one doesn't have to look too far to see what Mr Menon is talking about.

Manchester United support

In a dimly lit café recently opened by English Premier League Club, Manchester United, in Mumbai, hundreds of fans are crammed in to watch a match.

Covered head to toe in red team colours, their passion for the game is abundant.

Each win is eagerly cheered and every miss equally jeered. This Indian fan following consider Manchester United their team.

Manchester United is India's most popular English Premier League club with over 17 million fans.

There are as many as seven more Manchester United cafes & bars planned to be opened across India by the end of the year.

The goal for Manchester United is no doubt to build their brand and boost merchandising sales across the country.

Liverpool move

And, because of the growing popularity of football in India, it's only a matter of time before more European clubs also expand their presence in the region.

Liverpool, which recently secured a sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered Bank, has already partnered the opening of a football training camp in Pune.

The deal was signed because the bank is looking to leverage Liverpool's overseas fan base, especially in markets like Asia.

And according to agency Total Sports India, the Merseysiders may soon get more deeply involved in the country.

But if there are so many football fans out in India, why aren't they watching Indian football?

One Manchester United supporter in the café, who referred to himself only as the Red Devil, tells us: "People watch only English Premier matches.

"No one watches local football leagues because it is not telecast and... I don't know, the players are not that famous."

Another supporter explains: "I just think the exposure is very less, the quality of football is very less.

"I think India should shift its focus from cricket to football a little more but right now the media is only behind cricket."

Long-term vision

Cricket still holds India's number one position in the sporting arena.

But sensing football's growing popularity, an increasing number of corporate sponsors from Panasonic to Coca Cola, are coming forward to support football as well.

To sustain the revived corporate interest in football, experts say more stadiums need to be built and better infrastructure needs to be put in place.

Many agree, the sport can also grow if the All India Football Federation (AIFF), India's governing football authority, articulates a solid long-term vision and commitment to develop the sport.

If this sort of time and investment is put into developing football, many believe the world's most popular sport could be a big success in India as well.

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