India 148 in FIFA ranking KOLKATA: In April, a bunch of pre-teens from Bangalore flew across India to play a few football matches with kids their age in Kolkata, the unusualness of the event reflecting the country’s growing appetite for the sport.
The boys comprised the under-13 team of Bangalore’s Roots Football School, and their parents bore the airfare and other costs willingly, says Amit Chacko, managing director of Game On Sports Management, which owns the academy.
“Many of our academy children want to take up football as a career, and parents are prepared to back them,” Chacko, who escorted the kids, told this correspondent.
Indian football peaked in 1956, when striker Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick at the Melbourne Olympics – the first Asian to do so in the Summer Games – and took India to the semis.
Since then, its fortunes have declined steadily; as of September 15, 2016, India was languishing at 148 in the FIFA rankings – the highest within South Asia, but embarrassing in the global context.
And yet, as Chacko’s boys showed, love for the game is alive in the country as it cuts across income groups and excites fund managers looking for cheaper alternatives to cricket.
Subsequently money has begun pouring into football in bucketloads.
In a nod to India’s growing attraction as a football destination, Spain’s Atletico Madrid has a stake in a Kolkata team – a first for a foreign club. Italy’s ACF Fiorentina followed, joining hands with a Pune club.
Additionally, Boca Juniors of Argentina and Paris St Germaine of France have set up franchise-based businesses through academies, while Chelsea FC has nurtured a fan club called India’s Blue Army, whose members are buying Chelsea membership.
In another first, Transfermarkt GmbH, a Hamburg-based firm that tracks football business globally, has put a market value on the Indian Super League (ISL). According to it, ISL is worth €30m (about $33m).
Read: How Pakistan clicked at India’s first pro league
Stars such as Ronaldinho, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Falcao have also begun associating with Indian leagues, while Zico and Luis Figo have accepted non-playing assignments.
David Bekham could likely be seen in India this January for the next round of the newly-launched Premier Futsal, as will Kaka, though league CEO Abhinandan Balasubramanian declines to elaborate.
“You will just have to wait and watch,” he said.
For now, grabbing the biggest hunk of the sports investment pie in India outside cricket’s IPL is football’s ISL, the third edition of which begins on October 1.
The Guardian newspaper of the UK calls it the world’s fourth largest football league by viewership, behind only those of England, Germany and Spain. Today, reports say even Latino students in the US follow it.
On September 3, after India beat a better-ranked Puerto Rico 4-1 in a friendly in Mumbai, the Puerto Rico Federation’s general secretary Ignacio Rodriguez said his players wanted to play in the ISL.
Likewise, Brazilian star Ronaldinho, who made his India “debut” in the Premier Futsal in July, now says he too wants an ISL exposure.
Co-owned by the $44-billion Reliance Industries, US sports management firm IMG, and broadcaster Star Sports, ISL attracted some 429 million TV viewers in the inaugural year in 2014.
On the flip side, stakeholders are still grappling with upfront investments of about $120m. It is feared that by 2017, each of the eight franchisees would have losses of about $15m.
In 2014, the Delhi franchisee paid about $1.5m to acquire Italian Alessandro del Piero; this was more than the combined salary permitted for an entire team in the Pakistan Super League – $1.2m.
Alarmed by the threat of runaway fees making ISL ventures unprofitable, the organisers put a salary cap last year; the biggest payout – to Brazil’s Elano – was about $700,000.
Take a look: Indian football sees role models breaking through
Still, says Eric Savage, CEO of Bangalore-based investment bank Unitus Capital, “Owning a team could turn out to be a very good investment as ISL increases in popularity and India becomes wealthier.”
And Balasubramanian, a Warwick Business School alumnus, is more upbeat. He is also sceptical of Transfermarkt’s €33m-valuation for ISL. “From what I know has been invested, it is 10 times that.”
The trend was perhaps triggered by former FIFA President Joseph Blatter when he visited India for the first time in April 2007 to see if it was ready for an “international breakthrough”.
Then in November, when the UK capital’s very own FDI agency Think London organised a visit by the then mayor Ken Livingstone to India, Chelsea Football Club CEO Peter Kenyon was in his delegation.
Livingstone’s visit sought to foster ties between his city and India in business, tourism, education and creative industries. Chelsea FC represented “creative industries”.
Kenyon was on a recce, exploring ways to enhance his club’s profile in India, a nation that he told this reporter was set to become an “economic powerhouse by 2020”.
The strategy Chelsea was looking at was one it tried out earlier in the US and China – create a localised fan base and then monetise it. “It’s worth looking into,” Kenyon had said.
Back then, Kenyon’s interest seemed odd, as Indian football’s glory days were long over. On hindsight, his instincts appear spot-on; the motley support base that existed is now a recognised fan body called India’s Blue Army.
The Blue Army has also earned itself a “Gold Tier” status – a rating Chelsea gives to recognised foreign fan clubs with at least 30 members or season ticketholders.
See: India pins hopes in new tennis league to find singles talent
This means, theoretically at least, Indians are willing to visit the UK to watch Chelsea play.
With reportedly over 7,000 followers, the Blue Army website even has merchandising deals with German sports kit maker Adidas and Canadian sportswear label Alcis, apart from several home-grown brands.
Apart from Chelsea, Spain’s Atletico Madrid has made an inroad as well, picking up a stake in ISL team Atletico de Kolkata. Italy’s ACF Fiorentina invested in FC Pune City, the ISL team coached by Zico.
Other clubs joining the bandwagon are Paris St Germain and Boca Juniors, who have started fee-based academies. As Boca Juniors India Executive Director Sunanda Das explains: “The focus is to promote the Boca Juniors brand.”
The academy has some 300 students in Bangalore and about 60 in Mumbai between 6-16 years, training under 20 coaches including two international trainers; all coaches are certified by the Indian federation or the AFC.
St Germain, which has similar operations in the US (New York), Brazil (Rio), Qatar (Doha) and Morocco, has opened academies in Gurgaon near Delhi and Bangalore through an Indo-French collaborator.
“The EPL, La Liga fan following is a big element in creating interest,” says Boca’s Das. “Parents also say there have been behavioural improvements in their kids after they started playing football.”
Agrees investment banker Savage, an American whose two sons and two daughters go to Roots Football Academy run by Chacko. “Football teaches our children so many valuable lessons, including the value of teamwork,” he says.
Foreign clubs are looking beyond PR and long-term revenue deals in India, says Premier Futsal’s Balasubramanian; according to him, their efforts are also about uncovering talent and signing them up before the competition does.
“With the amount of money and time being spent on football, we are not far off from producing our very own EPL, La Liga-calibre players. I can even go so far as to say, maybe one Ronaldo too.”