India

Can India ever learn to love football?

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Media captionCan India ever learn to love football?

Fifa president Sepp Blatter once called India the 'sleeping giant' of football. With the world's second largest population, many feel India is under-represented in the world's most popular sport. For One Square Mile, Tim Samuels set out to see if India can ever learn to play and love the beautiful game.

If the kids playing cricket on a piece of rural scrubland are anything to go by, then the omens are not good.

"Football is trash," shouts one young boy, no more than ten years old.

Indeed, none of the dozen or so youngsters has even heard of Barcelona, Liverpool or the Manchester clubs. There is not a flicker of recognition at the names Messi or Ronaldo.

What makes this all the more ominous for those championing football in India is that the kids are playing cricket on a piece of land barely a mile (kilometre) or two from the training ground of the local football club Pune FC, a team which plays in India's top league.

The challenge for football is considerable, notwithstanding a TV fan base for international football of some 80 million.

Despite its British imperial heritage and potential pool of talent among its 1.2 billion population, India has a distinct lack of footballing prowess, at least for its home-grown talent.

Currently the national team languishes in 156th spot in Fifa's rankings, tied with Liechtenstein (population 36,000) and just below St Vincent and the Grenadines (population 103,000).

Image caption Children playing cricket is a much more common sight in India

Though India qualified in 1950, they have never actually made it to the World Cup. They refused to participate, partly because it would have meant their normally barefoot team having to wear football boots.

Not a single player in the current national squad plays for any of the big teams outside their home country.

But there are serious moves afoot to ignite a footballing passion in India.

In 2007, the I-League was formed - the equivalent of the English Premier League - perhaps mindful of Asian footballing success in the likes of Japan and South Korea.

Pune FC, formed by the Mumbai-based Ashok Piramal group, a major Indian family business, is one of 14 teams in the I-League.

Located about 150km (90 miles) from Mumbai, Pune is one of India's fastest growing cities, packed with hi-tech and high-rises.

This is the modern face of India and, not surprisingly, it is seen as a fertile city in which to seed a new football club in this nascent league.

Just up the road from the cricket-crazy youngsters who had never heard of Manchester United or Barcelona, Nandan Piramal surveys his team on the training pitch ahead of their next match.

The young British-educated Liverpool FC-obsessed businessman is the club's owner and is messianic about bringing football to the masses.

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Image caption A Pune player vies for the ball in an international against Blackburn Rovers

'Passion'

He has brought in a Dutch manager and several overseas players. Some with English Premier League experience are part of the first team.

"It's just passion for the sport," says Piramal, explaining his decision to start the team.

"Following European football, following the English Premier League is a lot of fun but we thought being in India let's do something for Indian football."

The vision is still in its early stages. The training ground would be on a par with that of a lower league English club - as are the attendances.

For a Pune FC match later that week, a game that could have seen them go top of the league, the crowd numbered a mere few thousand.

But future success may rest on extending the club's reach and that of home-grown football across the country by looking at where the real passion is coming from.

Amongst those cheering on Pune were youngsters from the poorest sections of society - orphans and slum kids - who, like many in the crowd, were bussed in by the club. After all, it is hard to develop a following from scratch.

The club says it wants to be open to all sections of society. Nandan Piramal says his talent scouts are working with NGOs and will be sent to local slums.

"It's important we get local kids coming through the system. Sport in general has the ability to cut across caste - which in India is a big thing - religion, anything."

Image caption Football hopefuls in one of Pune's slums

Slum players

After all, footballing passion has traditionally been most intense amongst society's poorest, kids who dream of being the next Maradona or Messi - to escape from however humble a background.

You do not have to tell this to the kids in a slum just a couple of miles from the centre of Pune. Nor do you have to tell them who Man City, Man United or Barcelona are.

Of the 500 or so slums in Pune, I found one that is probably the most football fanatic - replete with their own club, Sukhai FC.

The pitch may be a patch of land prone to the wanderings of cattle and the odd scooter, but the dedication to football is impressive.

Older residents of the slum coach the youth team, the kit area is paid for from the salary of the manager and they all dream of playing for their local club, Pune FC.

"If I can't become a footballer then I can't live," says a 15-year-old boy clad in the Liverpool-red of Pune.

A fellow Pune fan adds: "I want to study and play football because I want to become something after I grow up. I want to be someone."

Most young people his age in India might say the same about cricket, which still has a stranglehold on national obsession.

But if India can start to produce a few Maradonas from the slums - homegrown heroes to propel a nation's pride - then the sleeping football giant might just start to stir.

And India might one day even make it to the World Cup.

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