'Mission 11 Million' to kickoff as India follows China's lead
By Amlan Chakraborty
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An ambitious project to awaken a sleeping giant of Asian soccer looks like confirming Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's famous remark that India pricks up its ears only when comparisons with China are made.
With China embarked on a multi-billion dollar mission to become a soccer superpower by 2050, India looks set to follow suit with its own plan to raise its status in the game to match its burgeoning economic power.
Come October, India, most famously described as soccer's sleeping giant by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, will launch a programme to engage more than 11 million children in soccer-related activities.
All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials will not share details of the FIFA-backed programme yet, but according to a government statement, "Mission 11 Million" will be launched in about 30 cities across the country.
As in China, where the soccer revolution was inspired by President Xi Jinping, the desire to improve India's standing in the world game goes to the very top.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March lamented India's decline from one of Asia's top soccer nations in the 1960s to its current position at 163rd in the FIFA rankings, sandwiched between the Comoros and Tajikistan.
"Unfortunately, over the decades we have slipped to the lowest rungs," Modi said in his weekly radio talk.
"Today our ranking in FIFA is so low that I feel reluctant even to mention it."
With India hosting the under-17 World Cup next year, states have been asked to promote football in a pattern similar to the trend across the border in China.
The world's most populous nation plans to engage 30 million school children by 2020 as the first step towards achieving Xi's "three wishes" for China - to qualify for a second World Cup finals, to host a World Cup and to eventually win one.
And while the AIFF are looking to engage as many of the country's 1.3 billion people as possible, they have also cast their net wider with a global scouting programme to identify talent in the Indian diaspora.
"The idea is to increase the talent pool," former India captain and head of the scouting programme Abhishek Yadav told Reuters.
"We can't guarantee that we can unearth 20 players overnight. It's an attempt, which we believe might work. There's no harm in trying."
The programme encourages anyone under 16 with an Indian passport to post, on a soon-to-be-launched portal, a two-minute video from a competitive match.
"We wanted to give the message that if you're talented, location should not be a problem. All you need is a passport and potential," said the former forward, who played 67 matches for India between 2002-2011.
Yadav and his team are now focusing on the Gulf States, where a large number of expatriates still hold Indian passports.
"Maybe we can then expand it to U.S. and Australia, where we have many Indian students as well as parents who recently migrated there. We will also look at South Africa and Germany."
While this has added to the buzz in the country around the hosting of the under-17 World Cup, not everyone believes India is standing on the cusp of a soccer resurgence.
"The fundamental difference between the neighbours is that China woke up long ago and played in World Cup finals before veering slightly off-track," soccer writer Jaydeep Basu told Reuters.
"With state support, they are now trying to get back on track. In contrast, India, I'm afraid, is still in deep slumber," added Basu, who has written an anecdotal history of Indian soccer.
"'Mission 11 Million' has a nice ring to it but with only 3,000-odd certified coaches around, who'll teach these kids to play soccer?"
As well as the lack of qualified coaches, Basu cites a fast-shrinking number of pitches - China plans to build 70,000 around the country by 2020 - and paucity of infrastructure as the major handicaps for Indian soccer.
MESSY MERGER OF LEAGUES
The AIFF is also preoccupied with a messy merger of two Indian leagues, which jeopardises the future of several sides, including a couple of century-old clubs in Kolkata.
The franchise-based India Super League (ISL), which is promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries and Rupert Murdoch's Star India TV, looks set to supplant the I-League.
"I'm afraid the ISL franchises have no soccer pedigree and I doubt if they have any long-term commitment to the game either," Basu said.
"Who can guarantee they won't switch to another business if they suffer losses in ISL?"
There is, however, no denying the ISL's spectacular success in gaining a foothold in India's cricket-dominated sporting landscape since the 2014 launch of the league with celebrity owners.
The ISL debuted as the fourth biggest soccer league with an average attendance lower only than Germany's Bundesliga, the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga.
The government hopes next year's under-17 World Cup will further consolidate football's popularity in India, attracting kids who would otherwise be picking up bats and heading to the neighbourhood cricket academy.
"Our youth, the children in our schools, should be drenched in sweat just playing football," Modi said in his radio talk.
"If that happens, we shall have real fun playing the host. So, all of us should make the effort to ensure football reaches every village, street and alley."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)