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Last Updated: Monday, 5 February 2007, 08:53 GMT
India reveals football goal
By Matthew Kenyon
BBC Sport in Delhi

India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh kicks starts the new season
PM Manmohan Singh kicks-starts India's new NFL season

A country of more than a billion people, but a national team ranked 157th in the world.

The football equation in India does not add up.

And yet in the 50s and 60s, India won gold medals at the Asian Games, finished fourth in the Olympics and even qualified for the World Cup.

The problem is, that in a huge country, football is confined to a few regions.

Calcutta (Kolkata), the former capital of British India, is the centre of the game.

The Calcutta derby, Mohan Began against East Bengal, is a match to rival anything Rangers and Celtic can throw up. Goa has the bug, thanks to its previous rule by the Portuguese.

But elsewhere, football comes in a distant second to cricket.

"As cricket grew, interest in football declined," says Novy Kapadia, India's top football writer.

"Fewer states were actively promoting the sport, so Indian football couldn't take advantage of the country's huge population, with the numbers supporting and playing the game dwindling.

"And there's been years of neglect in both infrastructure and youth development."

There is so much to do to develop the game

Gary Lovejoy, Chief Operating Officer, Zee Sports TV

Watching a second-tier game in the Delhi local league, it is hard to argue with that assessment.

Fewer than 100 people have turned out to watch. The standard of play is poor, and so is the pitch.

But there are plans to revitalise football in India.

NK Bhatia, secretary of the Delhi Soccer Association, says his region has been chosen for a pilot project to be launched by Fifa and the All India Football Federation next month.

"Football will be restructured at the grassroots level," he says.

"We've already conducted coaching for our school teams, 45 teams participated at the ages of 10 to 13 and 13 to 16. And we'll conduct a college league, for youth development.

"After that we'll develop into a semi-professional league, and then into fully professional."

Coaches, funded by Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation, will be placed with the clubs and every club in the Delhi league will have to have properly licensed trainers, and proper facilities at their grounds.

A similar project is already underway in the state of Manipur.

So that is the future, what about now?

INDIA'S NFL TEAMS
JCT celebrate a goal against Mohammedan Sporting
Mahindra United (Mumbai)
East Bengal (Calcutta)
Dempo Sports Club (Goa)
Sporting Club de Goa
JCT (Punjab)
Mohun Bagan (Calcutta)
Mohammedan Sporting (Calcutta)
Air India (Mumbai)
Churchill Brothers (Goa)
HAL (Bangalore)

Mahindra United are the current NFL champions

India's National Football League, which is only 11 years old in its current form, is getting a new boost from television.

Zee Sports, a relatively new sports channel, has signed a 10-year deal with the AIFF to cover all Indian games and it plans to entice more viewers by offering a much slicker product.

"Ten years is a long time for a football contract," says Gary Lovejoy, the Chief Operating Officer of Zee Sports.

"The reason it is so long is that there is so much to do to develop the game here. There was little point in having Indian Football rights for just three years."

Lovejoy is an Englishman who has worked in sports television for most of his career.

He wants his product, visually at least, to match the best that Europe has to offer.

"We want to make Indian football look decent in the face of the high-quality production standards you get from the Premier League," he says.

"We're now covering football with up to 13 cameras, whereas previously the rights holder in India had gone down to four or five cameras, which simply was not good enough."

European leagues, and especially the Premiership, or EPL as it is known in India, are increasingly popular, especially with the young, urban middle classes.

Lovejoy wants to tap some of that interest and convert it to the Indian game.

The problem is that while the television coverage might be getting slicker, the standard of play in the Indian NFL is still far short of that served up by the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona.

And outside the football hotbeds of Bengal and Goa the intensity of support is simply not there.

Kapadia has a suggestion: "There are many states in India which don't have a club culture, so allow them to field an XI which would have massive support because of regional pride."

There are lots of plans to bring Indian football up to the standard to be expected of a nation of more than one billion people.

They are all a long way from fruition, but do not think India is lost to football just yet.


Matthew Kenyon's look at football in India is part of the World Service's India Rising season, which runs until 11 February.



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