In India, small steps are key to waking a giant

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 10, 2014 at 12:06 am •  Published: February 10, 2014

NEW DELHI (AP) — Praful Patel worked out a way to get India into an elite, global football competition for the first time.

As host of the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, India gets an automatic spot in the tournament.

OK, so it's like buying a ticket to get in. But it's a start. And it's part of the All India Football Federation president's grand plans for the game in the country of 1.2 billion people.

The AIFF has a blueprint for the future code named "Laqshya 2022." That translates to Aim 2022 — it's all about qualifying for the World Cup.

"We have to ensure football is the No. 1 sport in the country and for that to happen the platform has been laid," Patel said after his federation was awarded the rights to the 2017 tournament. "It will be a landmark event for India which will redefine Indian football."

As a politician and football administrator Patel knows well enough, though, that's it is one thing to be in the competition, and something entirely different to be competitive.

Heavy defeats in the youth tournament could have a detrimental impact on the development of football in India if players, fans and sponsors lose confidence in a country where cricket already is all-pervading,

There are millions of football followers in India, but it's a small percentage of the massive population. The game is becoming increasingly popular among a growing middle class, but many of those fans tend to follow the Premier League and other European competitions and aren't emotionally invested in local teams.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter once described India as the "sleeping giant" of international football, and urged the government to allocate land and build infrastructure.

It'll take more than a few nudges to wake up this giant. Ex-India coach Bob Houghton complained when he was in charge of the national team that the "country has zero football infrastructure," and there are other issues for the game locally.

The domestic I-League is dwarfed by cricket on the Indian sports landscape, despite extra funds flowing from a $140 million, 15-year marketing contract with IMG-Reliance.

Luring and retaining talented Indian athletes is difficult, with the top-earners making between $100,000-$150,000 a season in the I-League — a fraction of the salaries on offer in some other leagues around the world and in cricket's lucrative Twenty20 Indian Premier League.

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