Why India is football's new frontier

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Every Premier League executive worth his salt knows that India is the new China.

Opinions differ as to exactly when football will explode on the sub-continent, but most expect the clock to stop ticking fairly soon and the blast to be felt around the world.

Football is taking hold among the middle classes and everyone wants a slice of the pie for future sponsorship, television and/or investment deals.

In recent months, Manchester United, Spurs, Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea and Bolton have all sent representatives to Mumbai and Delhi. Indian billionaires have been linked with bids for West Ham and Newcastle and there is talk of Indian firm Sahara becoming United’s next shirt sponsors.

The English and European champions are the club of choice for most in the cafes of Mumbai, Delhi and the real football hotbeds of Kolkata and Goa. But for a few days in January they were challenged by the Sky Blues. No, not their City rivals – we're talking about Coventry City.

Why? One surefire way to increase your profile in Asia is to invite a player for a trial and, last month, India’s star striker Sunil Chettri jetted in from East Bengal to the West Midlands to do just that.

Coventry City trialist Chettri (left) 

Everywhere you look in India, agents – not quite as bad as the ones in The Matrix but hardly Morpheus either – are trying to find ‘The One’.

He will be an Indian player that is actually good enough to play at the highest level – as well as ideally having family in England to help with work permit problems.

Such a star would not only generate huge interest among hundreds of millions of Indians and dozens of Indian companies but he could attract Brits of South Asian descent – a win-win for club owners, especially with attendances on the wane.

Bury tried it with Bhaichung Bhutia in the nineties but despite talk of a move to Aston Villa, his English sojourn didn’t last long. Sunil Chettri could be different as he is part of a new breed of footballers in India – confident, articulate and ambitious. I chatted to him in October when he revealed that his feet were as itchy as they are skilled.

Bhutia lifts the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup for India 

“Of course I would love to play in Europe,” he told me. ”England would certainly be fine. The problem in India is that when you reach a certain level at an Indian club it is easy to become stagnated. I want to go to a club where I can learn a lot and achieve more.”

As it turned out, Coventry will not be that club and the Championship will not be that league – for now. The man who had led India to the AFC Challenge Cup in August and has played in front of 100,000 fans in the Kolkata Derby returned home with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ ringing in his ears and feeling returning in his frostbitten toes.

The biggest challenge for Sunil and his compatriots is improving the lowly image that South Asian football has overseas. The scene in the sub-continent has a long way to go but is slowly improving.

The professional I-League is into its second season, the national team will play in the 2011 Asian Cup and club teams have a chance at the Asian Champions League in 2009 for the very first time.

It won’t be Sunil's last visit to Europe, and he won’t be the last Indian as his compatriots are now catching well-trained eyes. Earlier this month, Bayern Munich under-23 coach Gerd Muller was particularly impressed by Nirmal Chettri (no relation).

“East Bengal’s No.3 was brilliant on Saturday,” said Muller. “He struggled a bit today when he was playing in midfield but once he was dropped back in defence he looked sharp and impressed me a lot.”

When Der Bomber sounds a warning, the explosion can’t be far away.

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