Joseph S. Blatter has touched down in India and will be exploring the country between now and 18 April, as he pays his first official visit since taking over as FIFA President. He previously travelled to the world's second-most populous nation in 1978, taking in Madras (Chennai) and Bangalore as FIFA Director of Technical Development Programmes, and then returned for the Asian Games in 1982.
This time, the President landed in Kolkata, the cradle and true hotbed of football on Indian soil. On Sunday, he will attend the local derby between Mohun Bagan and Kingfisher East Bengal, before making the journey to New Delhi on Monday. The goal of his visit is to meet the leading figures in politics and industry, as well as the country's football officials, to assess the needs of the game in India and launch the Win in India with India project. FIFA.com spoke to him about his hopes for the trip.
FIFA.com : Mr. Blatter, could you tell us the reasons for your visit to India?
Joseph S. Blatter: Football is extremely popular because it's a simple game. It boils down to kicking a ball and putting it between two posts. That's why it's so universal and why there's no reason it shouldn't be just as popular in India, a country with more than a billion inhabitants. At the last FIFA Congress, we made a very clear statement: "We must do more in India." In Asia, there are two giants - China and India - but we realised one of those giants had yet to be fully touched by football and hadn't felt the benefits of its enormous impact. That's why I'm pleased to have come to this country to awaken people's awareness. It's obvious we have to help the professional league to improve and that there is a need for technical and administrative infrastructures as well. In addition, the national team has to succeed so it can become a driving force. We know the talent is there. Don't be under any illusions, we've been thinking about coming here to help India develop football for a long time, and we've already begun via the AFC's Vision Asia programme.
How well do you know Indian football?
I've come here to get to know it better, but I know that football has a strong tradition in India, despite what a lot of people think. Football arrived here very early on, in the 19th century, and it's still the number one sport in several states. Matches can inspire immense popular fervour in places like Kolkata and Goa, for example. So we're not here to teach Indians what football is. They didn't have to wait for us to get to know it and we're conscious of that.
In concrete terms, what is FIFA doing in India?
The time has come for us to act. I want to get a precise idea of Indian football and a true feel for it. For that, you have to visit the place, watch a game and meet the people in charge. So, we'll be meeting football officials, as well as the important figures in politics and the economy. The trip will help us take stock of the country's needs so we can then identify the areas where FIFA can help out. We will also be inaugurating the Goal 1 project, which allowed construction of a headquarters for the association. After that, we will be launching the Win in India with India programme, which follows on from the Win in Africa with Africa project.
Do you think India could host a FIFA tournament?
India could bid to hold a FIFA tournament like any other country. There are numerous possibilities, what with youth competitions, women's football, Futsal etc. But the initiative has to come from the Indian Football Association and the infrastructures have to be put in place. India is a football nation - we know that - and I'm certain the media interest would be there. It's just a question of being patient. Rome wasn't built in a day!
Women's football is not very developed in India. Do you feel it is possible to change that situation?
Women's football has already managed to grow in countries where cultural, religious or political factors might have made that appear unlikely. As a result, there's no reason why it can't work in India. For example, a film such as 'Bend it like Beckham', in which Parminder Nagra, an actress with Indian roots, put in such a brilliant performance, could act as a spark for women's football in the country. It's just a question of opening the door. I said in 1995 that the future of football was women's football and I don't think I was mistaken. The epidemic could well reach India!
What are the other areas where FIFA can help?
The focus in the future will be on developing artificial pitches in regions where climate conditions make that a necessity. FIFA's new quality concept is all about making it possible to play on decent pitches anywhere in the world. Just look at what is being done with the Win in Africa with Africa project. Players will no longer have any excuses (laughs)! From now on, we are expecting total support from the Indian authorities and I have no doubt we will get it. In Germany last June, I met the spokesman for the Indian parliament, Shri Sommath Chatterjee, and he told me, "You have to visit. You'll see with your own eyes how many players we have. There are 50 million of them, I'm serious." It was more than an invitation and that's why we'll be meeting with the Prime Minister, the economic partners, the media and the football authorities.
Indians seem to believe it has taken FIFA a long time to take an interest in their country. What do you say to that?
I understand that feeling, but India has been one of the focal areas of FIFA development programmes since they began in the 1970s. Furthermore, we feel the moment is right now. The association have a headquarters thanks to the FIFA Goal Project, the championship is going well after being launched in 1996, several sponsorship deals have recently been signed and television audiences burst through the roof in India during the World Cup. In short, this country is now ready to receive more help from FIFA, whereas beforehand it wasn't. The foundations are in place and now we need to speed up the process. That means finding an effective way of strengthening the championship, which appears to lack visibility.
You feel it is necessary to start by reforming the national championship?
Football organisation is pyramid-shaped. At the base are the clubs, because that's the initial destination for any player. As a result, it's crucial to organise those clubs into a solid league structure. Our experts have already come to India to understand their system, which, similarly to Brazil, is based on state championships and then a national championship. But, as it happens, there are more than 100 tournaments in India per year, which is undoubtedly too many. Ultimately, that's not good in sporting, economic or media terms, so there's a need to be creative and come up with another system.
Which country could serve as a model for India?
I don't think India needs models. It could be compared to China in terms of population and perhaps even the United States in terms of football, but that doesn't mean India should follow one example or the other. It is a country with its own specific situation. There's no doubt that the national team should play more matches, but that will require better organisation, building good teams in every age-group means allowing the time to progress.
It sounds like you have a lot on your plate during this visit!
We haven't come to India to change things as that would be presumptuous. I'm not a prophet, let me get a feel for the place first (laughs)! Still, I hope to explain football's power to the media and people high up in the economy and politics, and convince them that it's a good thing for the country: not only because it's a popular sport around the world and generates revenue, but above all because it's a wonderful school for life. It brings hope. Its impact as an educational tool is considerable because it teaches discipline, respect and solidarity. Even if you can't turn every child into a talented player, you can't help but turn them into better people.
What will FIFA's overriding message to the people of India be?
That football is more than a sport because it has a social, cultural, economic and political impact. It is an integral part of our society. Football is a school for life, nothing less. That's why FIFA must take its own responsibility for building a better future for everyone, Indians included.