NEW DELHI - When sports lovers in India talk about a Premier League igniting their passion, they're usually not referring to the English football competition.
The Indian Premier League dwarfs every other sporting event on the sub-continent for the crowds it draws, the TV ratings, the cash it generates and the rewards for the players.
Cricket is followed with almost religious fervour, particularly the smash-and-bash Twenty20 version, to the detriment of most other sports.
It wasn't long ago that the administrators who ran domestic football needed handouts from the Board of Control for Cricket in India for survival. Where else could that happen?
But things are slowly changing. The global game is catching on. There is a burgeoning fan football fan base, particularly in the major cities, although they're primarily interested in faraway foreign leagues.
Top officials including FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who once described India as "the sleeping giant" of the game, recognize the scope for football's growth in this country of 1.2 billion.
For now, football players in India are considered the poor cousins of glamorous cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli, who have the marketability to sell anything from real estate projects to motor bikes or cola.
The success of IPL has only widened the divide, as the top Indian cricketers easily earn in excess of $2 million per season from the Twenty20 league, on top of their regular contracts and match fees from the national cricket board.
The top Indian footballers earn about $100,000-$150,000 per season from the professional I-League, although foreign players in the competition can earn double that amount.
Former Tottenham midfielder Rohan Ricketts and Australian A-League player Carlos Hernandez are among the new signings, but don't have the kind of profile that will entice fans away from cricket or from watching football overseas. Most Indian football fans are more familiar with Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi than anyone playing in the local league.
Cable television has played a big part in that, bringing world-class football into Indian lounge rooms makes the domestic competition look comparatively slow-motion.
Morning news programs frequently offer detailed analysis of overnight matches from Europe, albeit with home-grown commentators.
The infrequent internationals featuring the Indian team or friendlies involving popular foreign teams pull packed houses, but club games rarely attract big crowds.
The top Indian names and a host of imports have failed to generate large-scale interest in six editions of the professional I-League. And the interest of clubs like Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea seems to be in tapping the fan base in India rather than unearthing local talent.
The hurdles for developing football start right at the foundations, in terms of buildings and competition.
All stadiums in the country are either owned by state or local municipal corporations, leaving football officials at the mercy of unwieldy bureaucracies and often leading to neglected facilities.
Englishman Bob Houghton spoke frequently about the need for a national football centre during his five-year tenure as India coach and was forced to hold off-shore camps in Dubai to prepare his squad for matches.
"You're talking about a country that has zero football infrastructure," a frustrated Houghton said as he neared the end of his tenure in 2011. "We have, I think, one stadium in the whole of the country that meets the criteria to host a World Cup qualifier and that's in Chennai, where there's no football. It's an athletics stadium."
Houghton pointed out that development programs can be managed but infrastructure would remain a problem.
"You can force clubs to start working with under-19s, under-17s and under-14s. That just needs the political will to start. But you can't build infrastructure overnight, it takes a definite commitment," Houghton said.
Blatter understood the problem and asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for land and infrastructure during a visit last year when he spoke of better prospects for the game.
"We're carefully following the development of football in India. A lot of centres are coming up but a lot still needs to be done if football has to be a top game in the country," Blatter said. "I know you have another game (cricket) that is at the top, but there is surely place for two games up there. I want to establish football in this country."
Cricket officials tried to give football a kick along in 2009 when the BCCI announced a $5 million handout for the All Indian Football Federation, but eventually held back half the amount because they were not sure of how the money was being used. That is the kind of image that the national football federation needs to change.
India's football team is ranked below No. 160, and the euphoria of qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup has started to wane. The team is looking for more challenges under Dutch coach Wim Koevermans.
The failure to raise standards isn't simply because of a lack of development programs or exposure for the game. The inconsistent scheduling of matches contributes to the problem, with the AIFF failing to organize enough games on FIFA match days which have an impact on rankings.
"It's very difficult to create an international calendar for the team," Kovermans said. "It's tough to play an international match on every (FIFA) date and it also becomes tough for the clubs to release players. So we have to have a good plan and make use of any opportunity that we get to play international matches."
The smattering of players from Nigeria, Brazil and other countries might have improved I-League standards but haven't really generated enough local interest to offset the fact that they're causing issues in the supply line for the national team, especially in the forwards, since those spots are mostly taken by foreign players in the league.
Still, there's money coming into the game, and plenty of intent to develop it. Sponsorship for the national federation has increased after the $140 million contract signed with IMG-Reliance in 2010 for 15 years. But a franchise-based pro league in the eastern state of West Bengal, which featured semi-retired stars like Argentina striker Hernan Crespo and Italy's World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, failed to take off.
Indian football administrators are rumoured to be creating a more robust franchise-based competition, based on the cash-rich IPL cricket format, in the hope of attracting some local fans away from European football.
Unless that happens, football will always be second-fiddle to cricket in India.
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