Liverpool Football Club is building training schools across India, following arch-rival Manchester United into the subcontinent and its growing soccer fan-base.
Liverpool, the 18-time English champion, will open five soccer academies in India by 2012 and plans similar institutes in China, Steve McMahon, the former Liverpool midfield player and chief coach for the project, told reporters in New Delhi today. Manchester United, which has awarded rights to operate club-themed bars in India, is said to be planning a $1 billion share-sale in Singapore this year.
“Our supporters around the world are in the millions, but it has been very difficult for them to get close to their team so we’re bringing a bit of Liverpool to them,” said Ian Rush, the club’s leading scorer of all time. “India is already famous for cricket, maybe one day it will be famous for football.”
Liverpool may have some way to go to match the support in Asia enjoyed by Manchester United, the most valuable soccer team in the world according to Forbes Magazine, which estimates that more than two-thirds of its fans live on the continent. India will host reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi on Sept. 2 when Argentina faces Venezuela in a friendly match at a 120,000-capacity stadium in Kolkata.
“It’s a business deal aimed at the middle class population in India which is bigger than most European countries,” said Novy Kapadia, an Indian soccer expert. “Their heroes play in English teams, so the clubs are capitalizing on the craze.”
Liverpool dominated European soccer for two decades, winning 11 of its 18 English championships and four of its five European Cups between 1972 and 1990, with players such as Rush, Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes. The team logo bears the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and fans sing the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein song at every home match.
The team was bought by a group led by Boston-based investor John W. Henry, owner of the Red Sox baseball team, last October. Its former U.S. owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks had failed to repay bank debts linked to their 2007 purchase.
Liverpool already has a partnership with an academy in the western India city of Pune. The club is further entrenching itself in Asia after playing exhibition matches in China and Malaysia in July, a year after Standard Chartered Plc (STAN), which gets more than three-quarters of its profit from Asia, signed a sponsorship deal with the club worth 81.5 million pounds ($134 million).
“This is not about the money, this is about me giving something back to the game,” said McMahon, who is partnering with Liverpool and Indian real estate developer Carnoustie Management Pvt. in creating the schools. “The English Premier League should have been here a long time ago, we are here finally walking the walk.”
Manchester United’s sponsorship deal, expected to be finalized in September, with Malaysian snack maker Mamee Double Decker Bhd. (MAMEE) will be the most recent signed with an Asian company. Existing sponsors from Asia include India’s Bharti Airtel Ltd. (BHARTI), South Korean tire-maker Kumho Tire Co. and Thai beer brand Singha.
“It’s excellent for India’s young footballers and for foreign clubs looking to tap our big population to sell the game and their merchandise,” Chuni Goswami, who captained India’s national team from 1962 to 1966, said by telephone from Kolkata. “Football has been around for many years in India, but lacking money and infrastructure to become big. Foreign clubs are now realizing the potential.”
Cricket continues to rule in India. The Indian Premier League, its foremost cricket league, is valued at about $2 billion. Nearly 68 million people watched India, the host-nation and champion of the 2011 cricket World Cup, defeat Sri Lanka in the tournament’s final on April 2, according to Audience Measurement & Analytics. In contrast, the nation’s football ranks 158 in the world, below Palestine and Madagascar.
“These could become exciting times for Indian football,” Goswami said. “Now Indians can dream of rubbing shoulders with the best in Europe.”
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