Messi fever grips India football capital

A Messi poster outside a home in Calcutta, India Messi is hugely popular in football-mad Calcutta

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Calcutta has gone Messi mad.

The visit of the Argentina captain to India's football capital has temporarily overshadowed the adulation normally lavished on its favourite sporting son, former cricket captain Saurav Ganguly.

For the next few days Lionel Messi will be Calcutta's newly anointed king.

When he landed here in the early hours of Wednesday morning, thousands of people were waiting to catch a glimpse of him.

Many wore shirts displaying his name, or had wrapped themselves in the Argentinian flag.

For fans like Uttam Saha - who a few years ago had waited at exactly the same spot to greet Diego Maradona - this was a dream come true.

"Messi is the God of football," he told me. "I never thought I would see him play here in India."

'Inspired generation'

Argentina are in Calcutta to play a friendly against Venezuela on Friday. It is a match that some hope will put India on the world football map.

Messi fans at Calcutta airport Messi fans gathered at the airport to greet their icon

Cricket has a religion-like status here, but for many in this city football is also a passion.

On every street you will see children kicking a football - often in Barcelona or Manchester United shirts.

The chief executive of the celebrity management group staging the match thinks this is an important moment for the sport in India.

"Pele came here at the end of his career - Diego Maradona came but did not play," said Bhaswar Goswami.

"Messi is coming at his prime. This match will inspire a whole generation of young Indians and their parents."

The organisers hope that 120,000 people will cram into India's largest football stadium on Friday evening to watch the maestro in action.

The stadium is used to hosting big crowds. Almost that many turn up to watch the local derby between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal.

But nationally, Indian is struggling to make progress on the football front. It has a Fifa ranking of 158 and its footballing infrastructure is in a poor state.

And like every sport here, it struggles financially against the billion-dollar industry that is cricket.

'Football destination'

But things may be improving. Last year the All Indian Football Federation signed a 15-year deal worth $150m (£92m) with one of the country's largest companies - Reliance - to market football in India at all levels.

Start Quote

Messi is young and cool - I am going to be like him when I grow up”

End Quote Rishi, nine

Senior Indian football administrator Utpal Ganguly says that, while cricket is king, "more and more corporates are switching their attention to the beautiful game".

"Things are changing," he says. "Football is on the move."

But some feel that all the attention on Messi will do little to help Indian football. Most of those watching the match on Friday have little interest in the domestic game.

The Premiership and La Liga are their leagues of choice. They will be able to tell you Manchester United's starting line-up but will struggle to name more than a few players in the Indian team.

Dhiman Sarkar, one of India's most perceptive football writers, says that the forthcoming game will be good in "showcasing India as a footballing destination".

"But it really does not do anything for India as a footballing country," he laments.

"By having matches like this you don't improve your football. It is something that you have to do on your own. And we are a long way behind."

Final frontier

Football has been played and followed here for almost 200 years. The televising of the Mexico World Cup in 1986 made Maradona a hero and created a generation of Argentina fans.

A football game in Calcutta Calcutta is India's football capital

An Indian company, Venky's, now owns the Premiership club Blackburn Rovers. Liverpool are setting up an academy in Delhi and Manchester United Chief Executive David Gill has spoken openly about his team's desire to crack the Indian market.

So it may be that football is about to conquer what some call its final frontier - India, the world's largest democracy.

And many clubs in many countries will be closely following the outcome of this particular match.

If it is a success, expect to see more of football's biggest stars heading eastwards.

But until then it is Messi who has captured the public's imagination and it is his name who is on everyone's lips.

Nine-year-old Rishi, playing with his friends on the streets, seems to sum up the views of many.

"Who wants to be [Indian cricketing star Sachin] Tendulkar?" he asks.

"He is old. Messi is young and cool. I am going to be like him when I grow up."

His friends laugh and tell him to start playing again.

"He likes to show off," says Vikram, 11. But before running off he stops and turns around.

"The [key] question is, when will we have an Indian Messi?"

It is a question that more than a billion people in this huge country could also ask.

On Friday they will have a chance to see the real thing. And for the moment at least that will have to be good enough.

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