Cricket-mad India ready to convert for Messi

Friday, 2 September 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Reuters: The arrival of Lionel Messi for an international friendly in India has sparked a huge media frenzy and drawn 2,000 fans to await his arrival in Kolkata, underlining the cricket-mad country’s growing appetite for soccer.

Indian fans of Argentine footballer Lionel Messi wave Argentinian and Indian national flags and hold a poster of Messi as they wait for Messi's arrival at the airport in Kolkata

Messi arrived on Wednesday morning ahead of Friday’s Argentina-Venezuela friendly at the 120,000-seat Yuba Bharati stadium. Hundreds tried to pursue the footballer on motorbikes as he sped to his hotel from the airport.

Big-league Europe-based teams have turned their focus to Asia in a bid to boost revenues in recent years, with Manchester United chief among them with a planned $1 billion IPO in Singapore.

Other English Premier League (EPL) clubs have eyed India for branding, lured by the promise of one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a huge youth population.

Liverpool has opened a development academy while Arsenal and Manchester United have also started soccer competitions carrying their names.

Some 60 million Indians tuned in to the English Premier League’s 2009/10 season, roughly the same as Britain’s entire population, according to ESPN STAR.

EPL team Blackburn Rovers, owned by the Pune-based Venkateshwara Hatcheries, is set to tour the country later this year.

Kolkata, the formal capital of British-ruled India, is the country’s soccer hub.

“It had to be Kolkata. Show me an Indian city more passionate about soccer,” Dharamdutt Pandey, CEO of the event management company organising the Argentina-Venuezuela game, told Reuters.

“Apart from the Messi factor, the fact that it would be Argentina’s first match under new coach (Alejandro) Sabella is sure to draw global attention.”

Nearly 120,000 fans gave a rousing farewell to Oliver Kahn in the German goalkeeper’s 2008 Bayern Munich swansong in Kolkata and former Argentina skipper Diego Maradona virtually brought the city to a standstill during his visit the same year.

Back in 1977, the city rolled out a red carpet to Brazil great Pele who arrived with the Cosmos team to find a massive crowd waiting for him outside the airport despite a steady drizzle on a September night. While the passion is there, the 158th-ranked India national team remains mired near the bottom of the FIFA world standings.

All India Football Federation (AIFF) vice president Subrata Dutta blames a lack of proper funding and sponsorship relative to cricket.

“This kind of short-sightedness hurts me. Nearly 100,000 turn up for a derby match (between city rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan) in Kolkata.

“But because the crowd primarily comprises the lower income group, we didn’t get enough sponsors,” Dutta said.

“Things will change with this match. We will be able to attract fans from middle and upper income groups and sponsors are naturally excited because they can target the consumers.

“I now want to believe that India would play in the World Cup, maybe not in the next five editions but after that and definitely before I breathe my last.”