India's growing soccer culture is getting more than a helping hand from its friends in Germany. As well as high-level collaborations, a number of Web sites set up by a German entrepreneur and fan are spreading the word.
Indian soccer can be spectacular. Pity so many people are missing out on seeing it
At a recent press conference in Mumbai, the Indian national soccer team's veteran captain Bhaichung Bhutia called for an increase in media coverage for the game in his home country, saying that the sport in India needed more exposure if it was to step up to another level.
One man who could answer Bhutia's call by yelling "I'm working as fast as I can!" is Arunava Chaudhuri. The brains behind the most successful soccer Web sites in India is doing as much, if not more, than anyone to promote the game in a country where the national sport is field hockey and its most popular one is cricket.
It could be an indication of the state of the Indian media's coverage of soccer that Chaudhuri founded and continues to run his sites from Germany.
Exercise in HTML leads to Internet phenomenon
Born in Remscheid in North-Western Germany, Chaudhuri was brought up on a diet of Bayern Munich from the age of four.
He started his main Web site, indianfootball.com, 10 years ago and it has since expanded from a one-man band to a media network of 19 editors and correspondents spread across the globe. Its base remains in Germany but it now has offices in Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Kochi and Bangalore in India.
"When I started the site the aim was to learn to use HTML and create a site," Chaudhuri told DW-WORLD.DE. "That it happened to focus on Indian soccer was rather by chance. I wanted to create something unique and as I was checking the online editions of Indian newspapers for results and reports, I came up with indianfootball.com."
Indianfootball.com is India's most prominent soccer site
Along with the main site, which is widely recognized as the main source for Indian soccer information on the Internet, Chaudhuri, his co-editor in chief and creative director Chris Punnakkattu Daniel, and their team of reporters provide the platform and content for the official I-League site and that of the Indian national team.
The sites have gone from strength to strength as the popularity of Indian soccer grows and the coverage of the sport expands. Both factors have led Chaudhuri and his team to turn a hobby into a professional concern.
"Earlier this year, the German soccer magazine 11 Freunde did an article on the site's 10th anniversary," Chaudhuri said. "After reading this article, we were contacted by the media entrepreneur Michael Cramer and he was so interested in the topic that we decided to work together and set-up IndianFootball.Com as a professional unit."
Now the Web site is run under the auspices of Indian Sports & Entertainment AG with itsheadquarters in Berlin. Operations officially started on December 1.
"We have a good healthy fan base in Germany for our site," Chaudhuri said. "Around 8 percent of users come from Germany; they are mainly Indians based here but also German soccer fans who have become interested in Indian soccer.
"We now generate over 60 percent of our traffic from India. It has grown considerably since the summer as earlier we had 40 percent of users from India, while 60 percent came from abroad."
Popularity and standard of game on the rise
While India has long been seen as a cricket and hockey power, its soccer credentials seem far less impressive. India have only qualified for the World Cup once and didn't even get to play when they did. The officials at the 1950 tournament in Brazil ended India's participation before it began by saying that playing in bare feet was against the rules.
Indian teams have contested the World Club Championship
In more regional competitions, India have done well, winning the South Asian Football Federation Cup four times. They were runners-up this year.
But while he admits to a lower standard of play, Chaudhuri is quick to dismiss India as a country where soccer is a poor relation to hockey and cricket in terms of popularity.
"Soccer was, is and always will be popular in India though the game has never been managed and marketed professionally," he said. "Things are finally changing for good and hopefully the beautiful game will become professional and our national team can compete at international level."
The signs of a slow-burning revolution are good. The Indian national teams is a good position to qualify for the 2011 Qatar Asian Cup while the new professional I-League, which is in its second season, is equal in standard to the third division leagues in England and Germany, a marked improvement on recent years.
German links helping to promote growth and quality
While striving to increase interest in the game in India, Chaudhuri and his team have used their links to promote Indian soccer in Germany. In 2006, the editorial team were instrumental in the negotiations which led to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) being signed between the All India Soccer Federation (AIFF) and the German Soccer League (DFL).
This collaboration led to the DSL providing advice and assistance in creating the I-League, the professional competition which replaced the old National Football League in 2007.
The I-League is now in its second season, expanding to include 12 teams from four different cities and will send its winners to the Asian Soccer Federation's (AFC) Champions League from 2009 and its runner-up to the AFC Cup from 2010.
Oli Kahn's send-off in India attracted 120,000 fans
The cooperation has also paved the way for Germany's Bundesliga clubs to play exhibition games in India and promote its own brand on the sub-continent. When Bayern Munich played Mohun Bagan, India's oldest club, in Kolkota in May, over 120,000 people turned out to watch goalkeeper Oliver Kahn's last game for the German champions.
Bayern will expand its link with India by setting up its own soccer academy in the West Bengal region, offering technical support to the local coaches and nurturing young Indian talent.
Germany may already have the edge in India, a country with the world’s fastest growing economy behind China and one seen as having a soccer market ready to explode. As well as Bayern Munich, officials from the English Premiership's top clubs have been meeting Indian representatives in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata over the last few months in a bid to tap into India's potential.
Financial basis less shaky than in western leagues
Indian legend Bhaichung Bhutia is an I-League icon
Indian soccer looks to be in safe financial hands too. Financial institutions in India have not been hit as hard as those in other countries and no club in the I-League is currently sponsored by a bank or investment company.
The league itself is sponsored by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) which is unlikely to worry about anything other than rising oil prices which are currently dropping. ONGC's involvement in the league would only come under threat due to an exceptional rise in oil prices, which Indian analysts don’t expect to happen any time soon.
Some believe that Indian soccer may even benefit from the financial crisis. While cricket attracts sponsors willing to spend outrageous sums of money for rather disproportionate returns, should the crisis start to affect these sponsors, soccer may prove to be a more attractive, cheaper and safer option.
Such is the gap between cricket and soccer, a sponsor could expect to invest as little as ten percent of its cricket budget to get its name on a soccer event. As a result, it is possible that the number of small to medium-sized companies investing in Indian soccer could rise considerably in the near future.
With the level of media interest rising, the quality of play on the rise thanks to international collaboration, and the immediate financial future of the game assured, Indian soccer looks set to continue its steady improvement with only the sky as the limit.