MUMBAI (Reuters) - As European clubs flock to India looking for footholds in a potentially huge market, the lack of interest in the national side has prompted captain Sunil Chhetri to launch an impassioned plea for fans to show their support by attending matches.
Cricket-mad India may be home to 1.3 billion people but the country is a massive under-achiever as far as soccer is concerned, yet to make a single appearance at the World Cup finals and languishing at a lowly 97th in the FIFA rankings.
They did qualify for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but withdrew ahead of the tournament, citing expenses and a preference to focus on Olympic soccer instead.
While the team may not be present at this year’s tournament, plenty are tuning in to watch with the 2014 World Cup television audience in India growing by 46 percent to 85.7 million from the previous edition.
According to FIFA, the world’s second-most populous nation also features among the top 10 countries buying tickets for the June-July tournament in Russia.
However, only 2,569 turned up to watch the national side’s latest match in Mumbai on Friday, a 5-0 win over Taiwan at a stadium that can hold 20,000 spectators.
Chhetri is the country’s leading scorer with 59 goals and bagged a hat-trick in the opening match of the Intercontinental Cup, a four-team tournament also featuring New Zealand and Kenya.
“All the fans, who came out in Mumbai to support us... thank you. It means the world to us,” the 33-year-old said in a video posted on Twitter.
“But, I’m making this video not for you guys, I’m going to speak, appeal and request all of you, who did not come. To everyone, who is not a football fan... please come and watch us.
“We will make sure that once you come watch us, you will not go back home the same person.”
Things are looking up on the pitch, however, as India will play at the expanded 2019 Asian Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates after missing out in Australia three years ago.
Once famously described as a ‘sleeping giant’ of world football by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, India launched the ‘Mission 11 Million’ programme in 2016, aimed at engaging that number of children in the game.
European sides from the English Premier League and La Liga in Spain boast huge fan bases in India and a number of them have set up local academies on a franchise basis in recent years.
Manchester United, who claimed to have 35 million Indian fans in 2013, and Liverpool regularly organise live screenings of Premier League fixtures which are heavily attended by their supporters.
India play Kenya on Monday and New Zealand on Thursday, and Chhetri implored fans to fill the stadium even if only to criticise the national side.
“To all of you, who support big European clubs and support ‘your’ European club with so much passion and sometimes you feel that ‘the level is not same and why waste your time?’ Agreed,” Chhetri said in the video with his hands folded.
“The level is not the same, not even close but with our desire and determination, we will make sure and try our best to make it worth your while.
“To all of you, who have lost hope and do not have any hope in Indian football, I request you to come and watch us in the stadiums.”
Chhetri has received plenty of support on social media, including from India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli and former batting great Sachin Tendulkar.
“This also will go down a long way in contributing towards creating a sporting culture which is the vision for all of us in the country,” Kohli said.
“And we want to be called a proud sporting nation, we need to accept and support all sports equally.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by John O'Brien