The Manchester United Cafe Bar in South Delhi is so silent that you could hear a pin drop. Man United fans in red team jerseys stare at a six-foot-wide LCD screen, not daring to blink. Four minutes into the second half of the game against Newcastle, the score is still 0-0, and Wayne Rooney has a free kick. A Newcastle player blocks it, but Man United forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernández strikes the rebound goalwards from 20 yards away. The crowd in the cafe goes wild, nearly drowning out the DJ's music.
This is a familiar scene at the football cafes that have sprung up around the country in the past couple of years, a symptom of the growing craze for football in a cricket-mad country. Man United was the first football club to start a cafe in India. It did this by tying up with the Mumbai-based Mirah Group, a 438.6 Rs 300-crore hospitality and real estate conglomerate.
"Manchester United approached us as they were looking for a reliable partner in India," says Gaurav Goenka, Director of the Mirah Group. After setting up the first cafe in Lower Parel, Mumbai, in 2009, it launched five more over the next 18 months in various parts of the country.
"Fans used to come to Lower Parel from as far as Mulund, so we started a cafe in Mulund," Goenka says.
On a big match day, the footfall in the Lower Parel club - the biggest of the six - is around 300 to 350, and the average turnover for each cafe is Rs 4 lakh to Rs 5 lakh.
Football-themed bars and cafes are not the only symptom of India's new sports infatuation, nor is Man United the only player in the game. Many foreign football clubs are finding that merchandise does brisk business. According to Technopak Advisors, the size of the sportswear market in India is around Rs 1,300 crore, and it is growing at 15 per cent year-on-year. It grew from Rs 764 crore in 2006 to Rs 1,259 crore in 2010.
Adidas and Nike are the two major sellers of football merchandise in India. Nike sells Man United, Barcelona and Arsenal jerseys, and Adidas sells Chelsea and Liverpool. "Delhi and Mumbai are the major markets. The 14- to 19-year-old fans of Chelsea are a strong segment for us," says Tushar Goculdas, Director, Marketing & Sales, Adidas India.
In September 2011, during the friendly match between Argentina and Venezuela, held in Kolkata, Adidas did brisk business selling the blue-and-white striped jerseys of Argentina's national team. The star power of Argentine striker Lionel Messi no doubt helped sales.
"Football will be much larger than motorsports in India, no doubt," says Goculdas. That might explain why car makers are interested in sponsoring football. German club Bayern Munich played the Indian team on January 10, 2012, at the Audi Football Summit. This was also the farewell match for Sikkimese striker Baichung Bhutia.
"Audi is passionate about football, and proud to be associated with Bayern Munich," says Michael Perschke, Managing Director of the event's sponsor, Audi India. "We hope to attract and inspire the youth of India."
Could association with a club earn a company the hatred of fans of rival clubs? Bharat Bambawale, the Director, Global Brand, Bharti Airtel, does not think so. "A sports lover can love every sport," he says. "I don't think it goes to the level of hatred." Bharti Airtel is a sponsor of Man United.
Foreign clubs are also setting up official football academies in India
to nurture talent and recruit for European leagues. Kolkata has kicked off the trend, with a Real Madrid Social and Sports Academy. The Real Madrid Foundation project started in April 2011. The academy - Real Madrid's first in Asia - is at a school in Kheadah village in South Kolkata. The Carnoustie Group, which has interests in real estate and hospitality and which is based in Noida, near New Delhi, has signed a deal with Liverpool Football Club to start an academy. When the deal was announced, Carnoustie Group Director Rajesh Malik said his company also planned to open cafes and lounges after the academy was set up.
"Football is getting more attention than ever," says Mahesh Ranka, an independent sports consultant based in Mumbai. "More and more people, especially youth, are drawn to it. Football merchandising is growing bigger." But he says companies need to think longterm, because Indian football talent is not developed and there is not enough investment in it.