India is football's final frontier, a vast, untapped market of potential talent which one day could play as big a role on the world sporting stage as the subcontinent does in cricket. At least, that is the belief of many in the game, not least Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, who describes India as "the sleeping giant of world football". But before the Premier League start licking their lips at the prospect of a future Indian takeaway, football there has to take off. The past couple of weeks have witnessed the first stirrings of that giant awakening from its slumber. Predictably, it has been Manchester United who have been doing the initial prodding.
The former United and Scotland striker Brian McClair, now director of the club's youth academy, has led a pilot scheme in Goa in which 5,500 aspiring young footballers have had their skills assessed by himself and a posse of coaches – 16 are being selected to attend a residential training school at the club next summer, and it is possible some may get to the United academy.
The success of this initiative, which has been backed by the All India Football Federation, could lead to similar schemes throughout the country, and the establishment of a permanent India-based United football school to add to those already in countries such as South Africa, Canada and Hong Kong.
McClair, 43, says he is excitedby the potential he has seen. "In India there has been massive investment in sports like cricketand hockey for years. Sport is a way of life in India, and now there are signs that football can also be a big part of it too. It will grow, I am hopeful eventually we could have Indian players in the Premiership, although this could take five to 10 years."
Dale Hobson, Manchester United Soccer Schools' inter-national development director, adds: "If you had just one Indianin the Premier League, football would go into the stratosphere there. The scope of Indian football could be colossal."
Twenty years ago, who would have thought that Australia, the United States, Japan and South Korea would have players starring in the Premier League? India, with half of its 1.1 billion population aged under 20, remains the largest untapped market.
"The potential is enormous," says McClair. "What surprised me was the huge interest in football in India. This is mainly because of the televising of Premiership matches."
Two thirds of overseas TV sales of the Premier League are in Asia, but until recently India has lagged behind the rest of the continent in embracing football. Yet McClair says the growing popularity of the sport is evident in Goa, where the strong Portuguese influence makes it more likely you will see kids wearing a Ronaldo shirt than a Rooney one. "You see the majority of youngsters – and a lot of adults too – walking around in football shirts. Not just Manchester United but other top clubs and other countries, notably Portugal, but the Premiership is by far the most popular."
The youngsters who took part in the project were aged between 10 and 16. "Obviously the skills we evaluate are quite basic, but football is played in schools, and I visited a couple where there was quite skilful manipulation of the ball. They seem to have a natural balance and flair.
"Historically, youngsters in India, and to some extent those from the Asian communities in Britain, have focused on other sports. But over the next decade this is likely to change."
Sir Alex Ferguson agrees. "This club has a tradition of nurturing young talent, and if we can play a part in accelerating the development of young footballers in India I'll be delighted."Reuse content