New Delhi: Top European clubs are selling the Indians a football dream, promising them foreign trips and even playing for their teams. These clubs are going about announcing the opening up of talent hunt shops in India like fast food chains.
Some see these big-ticket floor shops as pure business for the European clubs while others visualise a sea change in Indian football that is down in the doldrums right now.
The exercise has been going on for close to three years with top European clubs, starting with German giants Bayern Munich. It was soon followed by Manchester United, Arsenal, Celtic and West Ham which went scouting for talent, and more so, a market, using FIFA chief Sepp Blatter's quotable quote "India is a sleeping giant".
Be it Arsenal Tata Tea Jaago Re Soccer Stars, Manchester United Premier Cup or Mahindra Youth Football Challenge in association with Celtic FC, the clubs are on an aggressive marketing drive in collaboration with top Indian corporates.
For long, cricket, the country's number one obsession, was the priority for corporates, but now they have realised the popularity of football. India's FIFA World Cup viewership has shown a steady upward curve over the years.
No wonder, the European big guns are on a recce, knowing fully well that India can be a sellers' market.
Former Iranian star Jamshed Nasiri, a naturalised Indian having played for Kolkata clubs in the 1980s, is the project administrator of the Tata Tea Arsenal Soccer and calls the tie-up with European clubs a partnership for soccer development in the country.
"I see European clubs as partners in development. Till a few years ago, there was no interest in Indian football, but now European clubs have suddenly realised that there is talent here," Nasiri told IANS.
"Tomorrow they may even set up an academy here. India need infrastructure and if any overseas club sets up an academy here, nothing better than that," said Nasiri, who was a rage in the early 80s with East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting.
But in India, land acquisition is controversial.
Manchester United and Indian telecom giant Bharti had joined hands with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2008 in preparing a blueprint for a Rs.100-crore academy in Goa, but the project had to be shelved after the allocated land got into controversy. German club Bayern Munich has also shown interest in setting up an academy in West Bengal with the government promising land. But nothing has happened.
Football analyst Shaji Prabhakaran, a former national team director, feels that instead of coming up with isolated projects, foreign clubs should work alongside AIFF.
"Every year these clubs come and select a group of boys and take them on a 10-15 days training stint to their state-of-the-art academies in Europe. The clubs get the hype, but what will a kid learn in 10 days? You have to keep a bunch a youngsters together and groom them for long," said Prabhakaran, who was the director of Vision India, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) development project.
AIFF secretary general Kushal Das said the talent hunt programmes are nothing but marketing gimmicks by the overseas clubs.
"India is a big market for such clubs and I guess through these programmes they are trying to get a foothold in the lucrative Indian market," Das told IANS.
Former India coach Englishman Bob Houghton, too, was critical of such programmes, saying they are an eyewash since no English club can sign an overseas player under the age of 16.
"If you think that a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old will go and play and get spotted by Manchester United, you are in a fool's paradise. A player should have played for India at 14 and then only can he apply for a work permit."
"But getting the work permit is not the issue. They can easily go to places like Leicester and Birmingham, where there is a huge concentration of Indians. But the Professional Football Association will oppose their recruitment on the ground that there are better players in England than the chosen Indians," he said.
The Englishman was also critical of a corporate spending Rs.100-150 million for an exhibition match between Bayern Munich and Mohun Bagan in 2008.
Overseas clubs are also trying to tap the Indian diaspora to find another Michael Chopra or Vikash Dhorasoo.
Chelsea's Search for an Asian Star is one such programme in England and they have roped in Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan as their brand ambassador.