Rovers Ronaldinho and a passage to India

Shamrock Rovers have accepted an invitation to take part in the Sait Nagjee Amarsee International tournament in India next month.

The tournament, which takes place in the coastal city of Kozhikode (also known as Calicut) in the Kerala province in south-west India was once among the most prestigious events in Indian football and ran from in 1952 to 1995. Joint organisers Mondial Sports and the Kozhikode District Football Association (KDFA) hope this year’s tournament will relaunch the competition as an annual event.

“It is the first time that top European and Latin American clubs are coming to India for a tournament,” said Hifsu Rehman, chairman, Mondial Sports LLP, at a press conference last week. “We hope to revive the glorious football tradition of Kozhikode with this tournament.”

Former Brazilian star Ronaldinho will be the brand ambassador of the tournament. “He will come here for the event,” said Hifsu. “We hope to bring back the football glory of Kerala with this tournament. Though this is the first project of Mondial in India, we have been conducting football tournaments in Saudi Arabia, where we are based, for the last several years.”

It all kicks off on February 5th and runs until February 21st and comprises of eight teams which will be allocated into two groups. After the group stage there will be a semi-final and a final. The tournament will be played under floodlights on grass turf in the EMS Corporation Stadium (capacity of 53,000).

Other teams confirmed include Under 23 and Reserve sides representing the national sides of Argentina and India as well as club sides Hertha Berlin, TSV 1860 Munich, Rapid Bucharest, Watford and Atletico Parananense (Brazil).

Hoops boss Pat Fenlon is looking forward to competing in the competition. “It’s a prestigious tournament to be invited to and it will be a great help to us in our pre-season preparations,” he said.

“I think the players were a bit shocked when we told them but they’re excited about it and I’m delighted with it.

“You’re going to be playing against good quality opposition and that’s going to be a real help in terms of getting ready for the season ahead.

“How long we are there for will depend on how we get on but you could be there for 19 days in total.

“It’s a long way to go but we’ve looked into it and the flights aren’t too bad. We have the players pencilled for vaccinations next week.”

India is slowly developing a passion for football after largely ignoring the world’s most popular sport for decades.

Asia’s third-largest country has never made it to the World Cup despite having a population of a 1.3 billion, high economic growth rates and a sports-mad public.

Cricket is overwhelmingly India’s favourite sport but football is getting more popular among Indians thanks to the 2013 launch of the Indian Super League (ISL) or Hero Indian Super League, which aims to nurture Indian football to an international level and develop grassroots programs to develp local players.

Baichung Bhutia was the first Indian player to sign a contract with a European club in 1999 when he joined Bury F.C, paving the way for contemporaries like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu of Norway’s Stabaek.

There are eight ISL clubs and each of them have at least one top-notch foreign player. Ex-Italian international Marco Materazzi is the head coach of Chennaiyin FC, while Brazilian legends Roberto Carlos and Zico coach the Delhi Dynamos and FC Goa, respectively.

Similarly to Ireland, football in India has a large TV fans’ following with those interested in the game preferring to watch, and “support” through the medium of television, the big European teams as opposed to going to watch Indian teams in their own domestic league.

The ISL, however, is changing things and the queues outside stadiums on match-days are a new and welcome phenomena in India.

Also similar to Ireland most of the Indian Super League teams hail from only three cities – Goa, Kolkata and Mumbai and there is a feeling that in order to expand the game it will have to develop more clubs nationwide in the next few years.