Monday, May 7, 2007

Indian Futbol

Last week I stayed up all night to watch the Champions League semi-finals in India. Liverpool and AC Milan will again meet in the final, though this time Athens, and not Istanbul, will be host to the inevitable magic. Football is the global game, and I can attest to its veracity. I've juggled a ball with a beach-side Rastafarian in Jamaica, played pick-up at the base of Annapurna in Nepal (above), performed slide tackles on gravel roof-tops in Quito, played over a net in Brazil, inside a netted pitch in Italy, and on an imacculate court in Hong Kong. But I've not played in India.

If you consider India, you realize that football is really only 5/6 global, because 1.09 billion people in India do not play football, or if they do, they're not good at playing football. Since being in India I have seen football. All the EPL matches are broadcast and Champions League gets great coverage on Asian ESPN. But hardly any youth plays, and the pockets of passion seem few and far between. Goa and its Portuguese past is an enclave of football, and West Bengal, with Pele's brief '60s visit, has inspired a predominately Brazilian following. Kerala too has a smattering of futbolistas who I did see cristening some wet sand near Kovalam, but games are Spartan at best, and skill levels paltry. Although there is a domestic league, anecdotal evidence suggests that it's only minutely popular in those states listed above.

It's hard for me to imagine how a country of 1.1 B can't put 11 good players on a pitch, but it's true, and FIFA's Blatter had no qualms saying this in his recent visit to India. India is ranked 165 in FIFA global rankings, a dubious distinction that places them as ranking worse than St Lucia, Turkmenistan, and Andorra.

If you think of having a one-in-a-million athlete, India has 1100 of them, and they only need 11 footballers to create a winning roster. That means that they need one good player out of 100 million people. And this one person out of 100 million doesn't even need to be Kaka or Messi or Sevcenko or Drogba... just a player able to propell India to rank higher than Turkmenistan.

When India requested that FIFA revise its WC team allocation to include more from Asia the response was curt but frank (no, not the proper nouns). India and China can do a lot of things well, but putting the ball in the back of the net isn't yet one of them. When I want to watch the Champions League Final on May 23, it may be with some local friends. But when I want to kick the ball around, it'll be Felipe, my ex-pro Futsal buddy from Murinho's pre-Stamford Bridge home of Porto, Portugal.

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