By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Soccer is slowly but surely getting traction in India and Barcelona see the world's second most populous nation as a key part of their global expansion plans, the Spanish side's Asia Pacific Director General Jordi Camps has told Reuters.
Cricket-mad India, home to 1.3 billion people, is a massive underachiever as far as football is concerned and the country has yet to make a single appearance at the World Cup finals.
Access to better coaching has long been highlighted as one of the key elements needed for Indian football to develop, though hosting the FIFA under-17 World Cup in 2017 could prove to be a turning point in attracting youngsters to the game who would otherwise be heading to the local cricket academy.
A number of European clubs have come to India over the last few years to set up academies on a franchise basis in a bid to establish a foothold in a potentially huge market.
Barcelona have opened three centres in the country and Camps said they could prove a win-win for the La Liga side and India.
"The growth of the Indian Super League and the success of the under-17 World Cup held in India in 2017 have been absolutely vital for the development of the sport in the country," he said in an interview.
"Not only did it garner global coverage and engage young people of India, it also helped develop infrastructure, upskill personnel and transfer knowledge to a range of governmental organisations and businesses to help stage major footballing events.
"We feel that we have a part to play in the growth of football in the country too."
After China embarked on a multi-billion dollar mission to become a soccer superpower by 2050, India followed suit with its own plan to raise its status in the game to match its burgeoning economic power.
Described as a sleeping giant by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, India launched a programme in 2016 to engage more than 11 million children in soccer-related activities in the leadup to hosting the U-17 World Cup.
Barcelona have been in India with the Barca Academy since 2013 and say they have trained more than 25,000 young footballers through various programs. It has been rated as the top academy in India by the All India Football Federation.
"There seems to be a real interest and investment happening in grassroots football – with the AIFF grassroots programme launch in October 2012," Camps said.
"This isn't quite as ambitious as the growth proposed by President Xi (Jinping) in China, for example – but it's certainly a strong initiative for increasing the popularity of the sport.
"Still, 95 percent of children taking up the sport still do so at the local football centre or ground – with unqualified coaches. With our Barca Academies, this is what we are aiming to change – structured, consistent and well defined programmes that promote the club's working philosophy."
Spain's top-flight division, La Liga, also underlined the region's importance by opening an office in New Delhi in September 2016.
Last year, La Liga also announced a landmark deal with Facebook to allow viewers in the Indian sub-continent to watch every game over the next three seasons for free on the social network site.
Barcelona will host the Barca Academy Asia Pacific Cup 2019 at their Delhi facility, featuring over 500 players from six countries with ages ranging from under-nine to under-15, and Camps said they were always looking to grow the game in India.
"India is a key strategic market for FC Barcelona and we're constantly looking at opportunities to further engage and interact with our fanbase – whether that's through our academies, digital content or a first team tour," he added.
"In 2019, we'll be in China and Japan and beyond that, let's see."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)