The right time to look for sponsorship

The Messi factor clearly points to the need to conduct more such ventures (read friendlies) to strengthen the interest created in football. Inviting top teams or getting well known players to mingle with the Indians in the national league could be the next logical step, writes S.R. Suryanarayan.

A galaxy of International stars, such as Pele, Diego Maradona, Eusebio, Lev Yashin, Bobby Moore, Euzebiusz Smolarek, Jorge Burruchaga, Lazlo Kiss, Enzo Francescoli, Emeka Ezeugo, Oliver Kahn, Roger Milla and more recently Diego Forlan, to name a few, has visited India, nay Kolkata, the unquestioned Mecca of Indian football, over the years. Many top international teams have visited the country to participate in the once-famous Jawaharlal Nehru Gold Cup, now of course diluted to make even India look a strong contender!

Yet, for all this, has Indian football undergone any qualitative change? That is the moot point. A workshop held in New Delhi more than a decade ago under the auspices of the Asian Football Confederation drove home the point that only a strong and professional national league can galvanise the sport and more so in a vast country like India where the potential is high, but realisation very low.

In Asia, Japan was mentioned as a prime example of how a well structured national league had helped in boosting the country's football stakes. A Japanese official even spelt out how the J-league became a household interest over the years with even regions and localities getting identified with teams. Essentially that was how the sport gained depth in terms of interest and how the talent reservoir grew. Today, Japan is the Asian champion and a team that can cause a ripple or two even at the World level.

A similar ‘demonstration effect', to borrow a jargon from economics, is the requirement in Indian football. Where this friendly between Argentina and Venezuela differed from earlier experiences of hosting international celebrities and celebrity teams was that Indian fans for the first time could savour the unique moment of a living legend, at his peak in international football, performing before them. Lionel Messi is a phenomenon. The world knows about the deeds of this two-time winner of the Ballon d'Or with FC Barcelona. As his one-time team-mate at Barca, Thierry Henry, told Time.com, “this little guy, looks as if he could never hurt you. But give him the ball and you're in trouble.” A sample of his magic triggered delirious joy for the Kolkata fans and the millions not only in India, but in over 150 countries in the telecast zone.

The key lies there. The vast reach that television can provide ensures that even one individual can catch the imagination of the fans! A Sachin Tendulkar does it in Indian cricket, but Messi's reach, it can be safely said, goes far beyond the Indian maestro's considering football's global presence (208 countries). The response to the Kolkata match then is an eye-opener for the corporates. The medium of football cannot only be a great economic proposition, but the ‘big names' of the sport can also provide the impetus that it so very badly needs in India.

Like in Japan where the national league started on a soft note and then gained in strength and content to make it a lucrative destination for several international stars, Indian football authorities should take the cue from the Kolkata craze to canvass for generous corporate involvement in football, nay the I-league. It was the inability to infuse fresh ideas into the league and the lack of conviction in the way the sport was proceeding in the country that must have led to the unhappy winding up of JCT and Mahindra United.

The Messi factor clearly points to the need to conduct more such ventures (read friendlies) to strengthen the interest in football. Inviting top teams or getting well known players to mingle with the Indians in the national league could be the next logical step. This also underscores the need for more top quality infrastructure, initially in areas where popularity of football is high. All this calls for a high investment, clear planning, professional working and a touch of ambition. More importantly, the AIFF must take seriously the beliefs of the FIFA and the AFC that India has the potential to make it big and even host a major venture like the World Cup in the next two decades. Possibly, the Kolkata venture is the light at the end of the tunnel.