As the clock ticks past midnight, Shashank Surana sits with friends, sipping beer and eating pizza, waiting for the big match to begin. On any other night at Underdoggs sports bar in New Delhi, this pregame ritual would be reserved for cricket. But Surana, a 19-year-old engineering student, is wearing a crisp white Germany soccer jersey and counting the seconds before Italy takes on Germany in the European Championship semifinal. “Of course I like cricket as well, but much less than soccer,” he says.
It is hard to overstate the popularity of cricket in India. It is a national obsession that has for decades dominated the country’s sports scene. But, thanks in part to wider television distribution and online access, soccer’s popularity is also soaring, especially among the young and affluent. International sports networks now beam games from top leagues in England and Spain into Indian homes. “Middle-class and upper-class kids are the ones that will have the channels in their homes to see the matches,” says Jefferson Slack, head of global football development at the sports-consulting firm IMG. “If they’ve been exposed to soccer, they’re bananas about it — it’s much cooler than cricket.”
Making soccer hip hasn’t been easy. India has a professional soccer league, but it is a far cry from the glamour of European teams. Many of the clubs struggle to stay afloat, making it hard to attract topflight talent. The fact that India’s national soccer team is ranked 164th in the world, one spot above Aruba, also makes the sport a tough sell to would-be fans.
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The spike in interest has not gone unnoticed. A recent Pepsi TV ad in India showed Chelsea stars Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba — who has since joined Chinese squad Shanghai Shenhua — trying to play cricket against India’s biggest names before persuading them to play soccer. In December, the English club Manchester United opened its first store in Mumbai. Encouraged by the response, the club opened six more outlets and 60 stalls in department stores around the country. “The prime objective of bringing Manchester United to India is to make more fans, once we have fans and give them what they want, the business will follow,” says Jagdeep Shokeen, head of Manchester United in India.
Other European clubs are also trying to raise their profile to help crack the Indian market. Scottish club Rangers started a Hindi Twitter feed to help grow its Indian following. Bayern Munich, one of the world’s most successful teams, visited the country to play an exhibition match earlier this year. Last year, when Argentina landed in Kolkata to play, the match was nationally televised and camera crews covered the arrival of the team’s biggest star, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, from the moment he stepped off the plane at the airport. India tours helped European clubs and players build their fan base and their brand, but for soccer to grow, people are also trying to encourage more Indian kids to play the game.
Gursher Kahlon, 22, first became interested in soccer while playing for his local youth team. An injury curbed his aspirations as a player, but the passion stuck. “I don’t watch cricket because since I was a kid, I’ve played soccer,” says Kahlon. He still plays regularly in a custom Manchester United jersey with his name on the back, which he bought abroad two years ago because it wasn’t available in India at the time.
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To help give the game a boost, in 2010, IMG teamed up with Reliance, one of India’s biggest companies, and signed an estimated $140 million deal to overhaul the country’s soccer infrastructure. In return for IMG’s grassroots investment, they took control of Indian soccer from top to bottom: everything from management of the Indian national soccer team to development of the domestic league, including merchandising and licensing rights, sponsorship and advertising. This year, Barcelona also announced it was investing in a youth academy to train young Indian soccer players.
At Underdoggs, diehard Germany supporter Surana groans when Italy scores the first goal of the night. He has followed the German national team since visiting the country as a kid, but says greater opportunities to watch games kept him interested. “It didn’t used to be on TV, but now the World Cup and all of the European leagues are accessible,” he says. But perhaps the best way he’s kept up with the game, Surana says, is through countless hours spent playing soccer video games. “I blame it on the PlayStation.”