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MUMBAI, May 24 (Reuters) - India has been stepping up efforts to unlock its potential as a soccer power with the hosting of the under-17 World Cup on the horizon, the latest a venture looking to tap into the know-how of former European champions Borussia Dortmund.
Once famously described as a "sleeping giant" of world football by former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, India last year launched the "Mission 11 Million" programme aimed at engaging that number of children in the game.
While the All India Football Federation has also launched a global scouting programme to identify talent in the Indian diaspora, there is widespread recognition that any long-term improvement must be built on grassroots development.
Now, one of India's most prominent business conglomerates has joined forces with Dortmund to expose talented teens, mostly from the country's northeastern soccer hotbed, to top-class European coaching.
Under a technical tie-up between the Tata Trust's U Dream Football project and the Bundesliga club, 48 players from India are training in Bitburg, Germany under Dortmund's youth coaches.
The 12- to 14-year-olds will receive football training, and, just as importantly, German schooling for 10 months a year for six years.
"The depth of training in Germany is second to none," said Ronnie Screwvala, the founder of U Sports, which linked up with the Tata Trusts last year.
"The biggest challenge for us was to convince parents that their children can have an alternative career in sports."
During their six-year training stint, the players will also play competitive matches against Dortmund's youth teams.
The project ultimately aims to give them a chance to play professional football by placing them in clubs across Europe, North America and Asia, or at least providing them with opportunities for trials with leading clubs.
"It's a first step in a long process and we hope it is a stepping stone to putting India on the world football map," added Screwvala.
R Venkatramanan, the managing trustee of Tata Trusts, said the project was still in its infancy.
"We have started with the North East but we have a presence in about 17 states in India and we would soon be working closely with various state associations to expand the programme," he told Reuters.
Over the last few years, a number of European clubs have come to India, where cricket is far and away the most popular sport, to set up academies on a franchise basis and try to claim a foothold in a potentially huge market.
Christian Diercks, who leads a youth programme at Dortmund which has produced World Cup-winning midfielder Mario Goetze among others, said the new programme was not similarly "superficial".
"We are one of few clubs that do not use the franchise system with regards to development," he told Reuters.
"Everything we do, we do with BVB coaches. We never pretend that it's just BVB on the shirt.
"With Indian football, from what I have heard, the development has changed a bit and football is getting more and more popular. The young kids do not only play cricket but also play football on the streets."
India is the world's second-most populous nation but it is a major under-achiever as far as soccer is concerned and is yet to make a single appearance at the World Cup finals.
Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia feels that access to better coaching is one of the key elements to ending that drought and hopes the hosting of the FIFA under-17 World Cup in October proves a watershed.
"The future of football lies with the grassroots. For us, the under-17 World Cup is the start," the former striker said.
"Because the under-17 World Cup is happening in India, a lot has been going on.
"When I was 16, I had only four matches to play for India throughout the year. And three matches in one national level school tournament. So six to seven matches in a year.
"We need people with passion to work for football at the grassroots level. We need to train our coaches for them to go and teach the younger generation." (Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford)