Liverpool have announced their maiden foray into India through a coaching academy aimed at building football culture in the cricket-mad country. Reds legends Ian Rush and Steve McMahon revealed plans to launch the academy in October, saying the intent was to discover new players as well as develop the club's support in the nation.
"There is incredible passion for football in Asia," McMahon told reporters in New Delhi. "There is a vast reservoir of football talent in India that needs to be groomed at the right age. We not only aim to nurture the young talent at the right age, but also cultivate them into players of the future."
India has long been uncharted territory for English clubs but since the advent of satellite television, there has been a huge upsurge in viewers across Asia.
"The game is very popular in India," said McMahon, now a respected TV commentator. "Of course cricket is the main sport but we get many millions of viewers from this part of the world. Ninety percent of the Asians support Liverpool or Manchester United according to the TV ratings. So it's lots and lots of support."
The academy will first be set up at the Genesis Global School, an elite private school on the outskirts of New Delhi, before opening more centres across the country. Though football's popularity in Asia often concentrates on the far eastern markets of China PR, Japan and Korea Republic, the potential for marketing the game in India has made several English top-flight clubs sit up and take notice.
The recent takeover of Blackburn Rovers by India's Venky's group made headlines, and the launch of the Liverpool academy is seen as a major step towards getting a foothold in the country at grassroots level.
Rovers were set to become the first English Premier League side to play in India, but their one-off exhibition match in the western city of Pune last month was cancelled following bomb blasts in Mumbai.
Steven Turner, the head of Liverpool's International Football Academy, said the club's arrival in India would be followed by opening centres in the more lucrative market of China.
"It is very, very difficult to compare the markets in India and China," he said. "I do understand that China has more followers of the game than India. We are looking to connect with fans all around the world. We want to take our academies to as many parts of the world as possible. China will be our next stop."
The India national team enjoyed considerable success in the 1950s and 1960s, when they won two Asian Games gold medals, but they later lost their way. India currently languish 158th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, sandwiched between Palestine and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
But Rush, who scored a record 346 goals in 660 appearances for Liverpool, even suggested that football would one day replace cricket as the most loved sport in India. "Cricket is holding back football in the country," said the former striker.
"Football is the most watched sport in the world and I don't see why it can't topple cricket in India. You don't have the infrastructure for football as you have for cricket. If you support football financially the way you do for cricket, it will start to show soon."