Premier League and the Lure of India
Remember how Baichung Bhutia had undergone trials at Aston Villa and Fulham back in the late 90s? Fast forward a few years, and you have someone like Sunil Chhetri, who was denied a permit to play for Queen Park Rangers because India was outside FIFA Top 70 rankings. It is a different matter that he went on to become the first Indian to play in the Major League Soccer in USA. But the fact remains that hardly an Indian has featured regularly for a Premier League club. Are Indian footballers not quality enough? Or is it more to do with the mindset of those managing the clubs?
At least two players of primarily Indian origin have made it to top tier clubs in Europe – Vikash Dhorasoo, who played for Olympique Lyonnais and Paris Saint-Germain, and Michael Chopra, who played for a host of English clubs. But neither of them donned the Indian colours at the international arena. The top tiers of European football still lack an Indian footballer. But it is rather difficult to fathom why.
India, with a football watching population of over 200 million, is certainly a gold mine for advertisers. English Premier League(Barclays Premier League, for advertising reasons) is the most watched league in the country. Wouldn’t it make sense for a club seeking audience to include a player from the country in their ranks? History reveals that clubs have profited massively from shirt sales of foreign players, especially from the less represented countries. Manchester United signed Park Ji Sung in order to sell shirts in South Korea, in addition to his talent and work rate.. The signing of Javier Hernandez also provided the club with massive windfalls in fortunes. If an Asian country of below 50 million population could provide so much to a club ot Man Utd’s stature, one can only imagine what an Indian signing would do.
Considering that Blackburn FC has already been taken over by Venky’s Chicken, an Indian company, it would totally make sense for them to sign an Indian player or two, at least as squad players. There is no proof that the player would be totally useless in the long run. A player of Chhetri’s calibre surely does have it to make it at a lower club in the Premier League. Besides, it would also allow the club to be established in the country. The player could also double up as an ambassador for the club in the subcontinent, thereby allowing the club to tap into the relatively untapped market of sponsorships and partnerships in the country. The likes of Sahara, which sponsored the Indian Cricket team, and Reliance group, which owns the richest club in the Indian Premier League would jump at such opportunities. The returns could be so big as to erase the debts on some of the clubs.
It is no secret fact that English clubs have started organising off season tours to Asian continent. That Liverpool recently played in Malaysia, and that Chelsea played Thailand XI are a testimony to this fact. The day is not far away when English clubs would regularly tour India. In such a case, a familiar face amongst the players will surely give the club an edge over the rest. Having Indian players in the squad would also allow the club to organise camps and events in the country knowing well that someone who knows the culture is amongst them. In such cases, unlike the English players, Indian players would not mind spending their off season in India.
In course of time, the fan base of such a club in India would eclipse most other clubs, and could be comparable to the clubs which participate in IPL, if football takes off in India. It is here, that India profits from its association with the club. Expert training, better facilities due to tie ups with foreign clubs would improve the standards of the game in India. Thus, it is a win-win situation for both the club which buys the Indian player, as well as Indian clubs which have tie-ups, due to representation of India in English league.
Of course, there is still the issue of work permit. But there are still players from other Asian countries like Japan, who are contracted to English clubs, and are plying their trade in other leagues of Europe, so that they are eligible for an EU passport in two years, which nullifies the need for a work permit to play in the English league structure. The option has not yet been utilised by English clubs with respect to any Indian players so far.
It remains a fantasy at the time of writing this article, that there would be a Ji Sung Park from India. Or that an English club would establish academies all over India. But what happens in the future, we really can’t predict. An untapped oil well lies deserted, it is only a matter of time before the barons come sniffing.
We are inviting reader opinion on this subject. Are Indian players below par? Or are English clubs not clever enough?