Give Indian Football a helping hand

Written by: Radha Radhakrishnan
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Blackburn Rovers
The pride and glory of winning is a great ego booster. It has a kind of intoxication effect. This is how India"s largest poultry firm Venky"s must have felt last week with their decision to buy Blackburn Rovers, ranked at 17 on the English Premier League (EPL) charts, for £ 46 million.

Keeping aside the superficial glory of 'Indian firm buying an EPL club', let"s get the fact straight – Blackburn is no great team... They are just about managing to stay above relegation zone. In its existence of over a century, the club has managed to win an EPL title only once.

What gives Venky"s a high is the fact that other Indian corporates like Reliance or the Sahara Group have not been successful in this effort. Asia"s largest poultry firm with about billion dollar revenues accomplished what Asia"s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, couldn"t. A dream run indeed.

The deal expected to be completed in November entails Venky"s to pay £25 million to buy the club from the family of the late Blackburn benefactor Jack Walker apart from spending £15 million to pay debts of the club. The club which was desperate for a buyer for over 2 years now is finally seeing a ray of hope.

The deal has ruffled feathers both in England and in India. Some section of Football enthusiasts are not happy about EPL clubs being owned by non-UK citizens. In India some are questioning the logic of putting money on a foreign club when much desired to be done for Indian football.

It is pathetically embarrassing to see second largest populated country in the world ranked at 144 among 208 countries in the latest FIFA football rankings. India has never taken part in any of the 19 World Cup finals till date, even though they did qualify for the 1950 World Cup.

Reasons for this abysmal performance are partly our love for cricket and largely lack of professional approach. Standards of Indian football have degraded gradually due to this and today investment into the sport is completely lacking.

Consider this - in the beginning of the year, M&M announced winding up of its club Mahindra United at the end of the season. The company wants to take 'football to grass root level" and train kids instead of running the club. Running the club in India would require anywhere between Rs 7 crore to Rs 10 crore.

Vijay Mallya's United Breweries Group sponsors both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Like M&M, it foots almost all the bill of running the two teams as the concept of organised football finance is nonexistent in India. In fact, recent efforts by Bollywood actor John Abraham and Indian football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia's proposal for an Indian Football League similar to that of highly-successful IPL in cricket has not found any takers.

For long, cricket has been given as an excuse for football not taking off in India. Undoubtedly cricket has a huge fan following in India. It"s only natural that corporates and sponsors swarm the sport with their bucks.

A recent study estimates that India, which has just about one percent share of $40 billion global sports sponsorship spends is expected to grow this to five per cent in the coming years with a majority of the funds still going to cricket.

However, what is interesting to note is the fact that football ranks second favourite sport in India. With professional football nonexistent in India, it really means that we Indians track global football.

Premier League was watched by more than 60 million Indians last year. This is the key reason for Corporate India"s fancy for Premier League Club overseas. Venky"s management say Blackburn has 14 per cent Indian fan base and they look forward to cash in on that.

It"s not just in India they want to cash in on this globally too. Venky"s has drawn up ambitious plan of diversification in about 25 countries and EPL worldwide following is a good vehicle to build brand and draw instant recall.

Despite all the hype and hoopla inside the country, unfortunately cricket does not extend its reach beyond a dozen odd nations. So corporates with global ambitious have to set aside their love for the sport and look at alternatives that gives them the ability to quantum jump. What this translates to from India"s perspective is even further dwindling of corporate support for football and deflection to buy clubs overseas.

Many may not even want to look at supporting the sport from social responsibility point of view either... Indian football seems certain to be on its death bed and intensive care is the need of the hour. Corporates and officials at the helm of sport bodies must work together and in tandem to revive it. Else, it may soon be the time to say RIP.

*Follow Radha Radhakrishnan on Twitter

*The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent those of or of Greynium Information Technologies Pvt Ltd. *

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