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Indian football needs to learn from cricket, starting with how to become a brand unto itself

The Brazilian striker with the magical skills, Neymar moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) this August for the mind-boggling sum of 222 million euros.

In recent times, French stars Paul Pogba and Ousman Dembele have been bought by Manchester United and Barcelona respectively for 105 million euros each, while Welshman Gareth Bale migrated to Real Madrid for 100 million euros in 2013.

Now, visualise a scenario where these pricey stars — and a few others like Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane and Kevin de Bruyne — are offered a 25 percent mark-up on their salaries to play a season in India. Would the players even consider it?

Indian football, for all it is worth, can’t provide a challenge for these geniuses. In cricket, the equivalent of three or four million euros each can fetch for Indian franchises the best players in the world. What’s more, these cricketers are provided with a challenge and are required to prove their worth on a daily basis.

 Indian football needs to learn from cricket, starting with how to become a brand unto itself

There's much Indian football can learn from cricket. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

That, believe it or not, is the vital difference between Indian football and Indian cricket. Therefore, for the AIFF and FIFA to believe that Indian football could work its way up the rankings and one day, sooner rather than later, figure in the World Cup finals is nothing short of a fantasy.

For Neymar, when he made his move to PSG, money was only one of the motivations; that too, not the primary one. With PSG aiming to be among the world’s best clubs, he needed the challenge. Moreover, he wanted to get out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and be the star forward for his new team. “I want to win the Ballon d’Or,” he had declared.

Top English and Australian cricketers are believed to have opted out of tours to India, till the late 1960s, because of unhygienic conditions and spicy food. Moreover, the hot and humid Indian weather conditions were a deterrent for most of them. For some though, the Indian wickets and playing in front of large, partisan crowds were challenges.

In the new millennium, along with world class hotels in most Indian cities, cricketing infrastructure of international standards has come up all over the country. With over 80 large stadiums, there are millions of new cricket followers added every year.

From the huge fan-following thus created, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has succeeded in cleverly selling the game, for huge amounts, to broadcasters and corporate sponsors alike. To run the game efficiently, BCCI has created a huge corpus. It pays its cricketers handsomely, invests in coaching schemes and infrastructure, and cares for its retired players.

The coming of ESPN to India, along with other channels, on the opening of the Indian economy in the mid-1990s was Indian sports’ ‘gold rush’. Cricket made it to ‘Sacramento Valley’ first and made ‘big money’, what with sports marketing virtuosos like Mark Mascarenhas and others on the prowl.

It is said, around this time, that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was offered the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) business plan by Lalit Modi. As the then president of AIFF sat over the proposal for months together, being lulled into complacency by the initial success of the National Football League, the IPL plan was gratefully picked up by BCCI.

Where BCCI accrued ‘first mover advantage’ and made big bucks through IPL, it is often debated whether AIFF — given its laid-back attitude — would have profited from being first mover at all.

Take the FIFA Under-17 World Cup being organised by India as an example. One of the biggest sports events ever to be organised in the country, its publicity and marketing was botched up. Sony, the official broadcasters of the matches, according to reports, expects to make around Rs 60 crore from the event, while any major cricket event leads to more than a Rs 1,000 crore of media spending.

Media experts believe that comparing football and cricket with regard to TV advertising revenues would be unfair. Cricket, they say, has breaks between overs which allow for a couple of ad slots every four minutes, whereas football lets ads be shown only at the beginning, during half-time and after the final whistle. Advertising wizards, however, say that there are ways of making money out of any event that has a captive audience.

All said and done, the organisers of the FIFA Under -17 World Cup have displayed a distinct lack of creativity and the will to make the most out of this world event. What is more appalling is the failure to create a larger fan-following for the sport. A huge opportunity has been lost.

AIFF sorely needs a professional marketing team to sell its wares. And it needs — urgently — to create football heroes! The English Premier League (EPL) is the most watched sports league in the world and has a TV audience of 4.7 billion people. Most Indian youngsters know more about the EPL than they do about Indian football. AIFF needs to view these youngsters, who follow EPL, as a potential future audience.

A higher pitch for ISL and I-League matches won’t do any harm. Indian football can also do with somebody like Sunil Chhetri and a few others being more visible in the media. Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and others did it for cricket and have now handed over the baton to Virat Kohli. Somebody has to become Indian football’s face; someone who can get in the sponsors as well as motivate youngsters to take up the sport professionally.

Moreover, like cricket, football has to be converted into a community movement. Many international cricket stars have come out of street-level tennis ball cricket. Football, organised on weekends for various age groups, beginning with 6-year olds on small maidans and parks could lead to a revolution. The AIFF has to take the lead in these local level initiatives through its state and district level bodies.

Grassroots are where the future champions come from.

Also, like cricket, AIFF needs to set up a national centre for football excellence. There should also be zonal academies, with talent hunters at state and district levels. Good coaches too, with a passion for nurturing talent, need to be persisted with and looked after well.

Footballers, administrators and followers of the game in India lament the fact that almost 80 percent of all sponsorship money goes to cricket. Instead of pointing fingers, it would be more advantageous for football to pick up a trick or two from cricket. Cricket is a brand; football needs to be one!

There is enough money out there for football too, provided the AIFF is ready to work hard for it!

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. He holds the unique record of his wards captaining the Mumbai Ranji team and the Maharashtra Santosh Trophy team in the same year.

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Updated Date: Oct 21, 2017 11:45:13 IST