September 2, 2011

Argentina-Venezuela come to India for Football Friendly - Are NBA teams next?

First of all, let's assume that there is no such thing as an NBA lockout (even though there is), and soon, our NBA-addicted lives will return to normality when the 2011-12 season starts, probably in time (which it won't) to once again experience the best basketball in the world. Okay? Not too much of a stretch of an imagination, I hope?

Now, let's briefly switch sports: as any football fan in India would probably know by now, a galaxy of superstars are about to play the first ever official FIFA international friendly game in India today. The game will be held - where else? - but at Kolkata, the heart-land of the game in India. It will be Argentina vs. Venezuala, and the interest of course, lies mostly with Argentina, a country that has produced amazing winning teams and legendary football players throughout its history. And its a team that features the current alpha-dog aka BEST PLAYER ALIVE in the game of Football, in Lionel Messi. Football fanatics in India, and there is a growing number of them, have been celebrating this long-awaited opportunity to be in the presence of a great player like him. Of course, he won't be the only star: Argentina's current squad that will play in India will feature the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero.

Venezuela may be the "underdogs" in this matchup, but they are still ranked over a 100 spots ahead of India in the FIFA rankings, which means that, even without the star-studden Argentine cast, the Venezuelan team alone could produce football much better than most Indian fans would've seen live.

This major fixture could open the floodgates for much more world-class football action in India - already, there are signs that there will be a full, professional football league around the corner here. Meanwhile, the top football clubs in the world are shifting their attention towards the subcontinent and rest of Asia. Real Madrid and Barcelona adjusted their game timings so to better suit the Asian TV timings. Barcelona, Liverpool, and Manchester United are looking to open football academies here; United already has bars themed after itself around the country. Two EPL teams - Blackburn and Queens Park Rangers - are Indian-owned, and continue to have relationships in the country to develop talent and interest from India.

Could more high-quality, international games be that far away then? If Argentina/Messi can play in India, why not bring Spain, Brazil, England, Holland, Portugal, etc? The fans are just whetting their appetites: they want to see Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Xavi, Chicharito, Iniesta, Sneijder, etc, etc, etc... Barcelona are even pondering bringing a pre-season tour to India in a couple of years.

Football teams look forward to the risk and the opportunity of breaking into India because they can afford to do so. Now lets revert back to our merry old locked-out NBA: Some of the world's richest, most marketable, and most freakishly talented sportsmen in the world play in the NBA. And just like interest from different football teams and from FIFA into breaking into the Indian market, the NBA has done pretty well to bring their big name players here to help increase enthusiasm and fan following for the sport. Over the past few years, dozens NBA/WNBA players or legends have come to India, including Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Baron Davis, Kevin Garnett, Brandon Jennings, AC Green, Dikembe Mutumbo, George Gervin, and others. There is no doubt that many more will come in the future.

(Remember, we're assuming that the lockout will be over and things will be all pink and merry again).

But the big move will come the day we here that an actual world-class basketball game - and by that, I directly mean an NBA game - will be played in India. It would be a pre-season exhibition, of course. If the best football players in the world can play at the highest level in Indian soil, why not the best basketball players? When will we see Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, or Dirk Nowitzki play in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, etc?

Over a year ago, I wrote an article about how an NBA Preseason game in India in the near future is nothing but a pipe dream; unfortunately, despite the growth of other sports and NBA's own continued outreach into our borders, I continue to host the same pessimism.

There are several factors still holding us back: despite the increase in good quality basketball courts around the country, we are still nowhere near the type of facility and infrastructure that NBA players will risk playing on. Now, I know that the previous sentence sounds ridiculous in the light of the fact that so many of the NBA's best players have spent the lockout playing streetball in less than flattering settings: but those were possible because A) they played independently of the NBA, and so didn't carry the 'professionalism' that the league expects, and B) they mostly played in a familiar/comfortable environment which they were used to in their own country.

The NBA is no stranger to holding official games outside the borders of the United States (and Toronto): They have been holding preseason games around Europe for years now, and even held its first ever regular season games in London between the Raptors and the Nets in March.

Even Asia has had its share of NBA action: The NBA has played six games in Japan since the 1990s, and has held preseason games in China since 2004, after Chinese star Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002: the first game obviously featured the Yao-powered rockets against the Sacramento Kings. In 2009, when the Nuggets met the Pacers in Taipei, it became the eight Asian city to host either an NBA regular season or preseason game, along with Tokyo, Yokohama, and Saitama in Japan; Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China; and Macau.

What does all this add up to? It means that we're closer than before to getting an NBA exhibition game in India, but we're still miles away. With football, it is relatively easier to adhere to the international FIFA standards in terms of organisation, facilities, etc to host a major, world-class game. Basketball's highest equivalent level, the NBA, has far stiffer standards, and India still has a lot more catching up to do before Commissioner Stern decides to take a chance with us.

Luckily, India has the one thing to offer in the long term future that very few of its Asian competitors can: a large population and an open economy. Which means that the already fast-growing market for NBA here is going to accelerate into the stratosphere in the future, and soon, denying us our live NBA action will be impossible!

Let's enjoy some good football (in India) and some good NBA hoops till then. Speaking of which, when is this lockout thing ending again?

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