Vol. 5 Num 1022 Tue. April 17, 2007  

Look beyond cricket: Blatter

FIFA president Sepp Blatter on Monday urged cricket-mad India to embrace football, saying the sport had a great future in the land of one billion people.

"We are here not to fight against an established sport," Blatter told reporters on his first official visit to India, during which he will also meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"I admire the game called cricket and I don't to want to change the most established sport in your country now," he said.

"But I always campaign for football because in this game there is no difference between caste, culture and creed or rich and poor. It is the fascination of this game that attracts people all over the world."

Blatter said FIFA had special plans to improve football in India, who are currently ranked 165th in the world and 34th in Asia.

But he urged the country's football administrators to work harder to match world standards.

"The Indian dream of reaching top international levels can be realised through the work done by All India Football Federation (AIFF) with support from the government and corporate houses," he said.

"But it is only if you help yourself that heaven will help you. As Confucius said: 'If your brother asks for a fish, don't give him the same, instead teach him how to catch it'."

Blatter said that football's future lay in Asia since Europe was "saturated for foreign players and coaches."

"Good coaches will come to India if a good technical and administrative infrastructure is in place."

Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed bin Hammam of Qatar, who is accompanying Blatter on the three-day trip, was critical of the AIFF headed by federal minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi.

"With the existing structure, don't think of progress even in the next 100 years," Hammam said.

India was the first Asian nation to make the Olympic semifinals at Melbourne in 1956 and won the Asian Games gold medal twice in 1951 and 1962.

It may have been just the tonic football needed to catch the imagination of the country's youth. Official apathy, however, denied the sport its due even as cricket made giant strides.

Baichung Bhutia, the only Indian to play professional football in England -- he spent three years with third-division Bury -- blamed lack of planning for the current mess.

"We have no infrastructures at all at the grassroots level," he said recently. "There is no system in this country to encourage young boys to play football. There is no professionalism."