Thursday, August 27, 2009

When we were researching our list of the richest men who own football clubs (see Blog of August 4th) we came across the very interesting figure of Sunil Mittal.

Indian Mittal is 59th in the list of Forbes Magazine’s Richest People of 2009 with a net worth of $7.7 billion, having made his money in the telecommunications market. Mittal doesn’t own a football club but does have an interest in the game and his investments could have a world changing impact on the game as we know it.

Sunil Mittal, you see, is investing a lot of money in setting up a football academy in India, with the aim of helping the Indian national team qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

India are a country, along with China, who have the potential to change the world game solely based on population factors alone. It has often been a puzzle to me as to why there has not been a constant stream of Indian professional footballers coming through at the top level of the game.

This is especially true in the UK. Obviously Cricket is the sport you immediately associate with India but there is a large Indian population in the UK and many of them have a keen interest in football, both watching and playing. As the generations move on, more Indians are growing up living and breathing everything about football, but yet the talented individuals that exist in the community are not gracing our TV screens week in and week out.

In India itself, football is ranked as the second most popular game in the country, even ranking first in some states. The game is governed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) but the country with a population of over 1.1 billion is a major underachiever in footballing terms, and that’s putting it mildly.

The Indian national team is currently ranked joint 156th in the FIFA World Rankings. Incredible. Even the Maldives are above them. Their World Cup 2010 hopes fell at the first hurdle, with a 6-3 aggregate defeat by Lebanon. It’s hard to fathom.

You’d think that a country of that many people could find 11 to compete on the world stage. The big problem would appear to be the lack of proper training facilities and developmental opportunities in the country, but now, thanks to Sunil Mittal, this may all change.

It’s been a tough slog for Mittal to get his dream off the ground.

He first announced his plans in 2007 and announced a tie up with the AIFF in January 2008, saying that he would spend whatever was needed to see India compete in the 2018 World Cup. The plan was to build a world class football academy and set off a “football revolution” in the country. What Mittal didn’t foresee was the seemingly endless problems that lay ahead in acquiring the land they wanted, first in Goa and then Haryana, and then the recession hitting a number of sponsors of the game in the country.

Mittal is still keen for the project to go ahead, but his dreams of seeing India play in the World Cup may have to be put back to 2022.

You just have to look at the US to see what steady development in youth can achieve. Their programme has seen a number of top players now emerge and with more to come, they could start to be a powerhouse on the international scene. We’ve seen what they’re capable of already at this year’s Confederation Cup. If they could only get the MLS to put games on hold for international fixtures then they could really be looking at something big happening. The big breakthrough many have been waiting for.

It would be great to see a country like India invest in their footballing future. Even if only a small fraction of their population were to start to develop into top players, they would hold such sway in clubs across the world and we could see an Indian Premier League in football and not just 20/20 cricket.

Who knows what the game could look like in 20 years time.

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