Messi: A Turning Point for Indian Soccer?

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Piyal Adhikary / EPA

Indian young fans of Argentinean Lionel Messi and his country's national team cheer before the friendly match between Argentina and Venezuela in Kolkata on Sept. 1, 2011

Soccer superstar Lionel Messi will be playing in India for the first time on Friday. The 23-year-old midfielder captains Argentina's national team, which will face off against Venezuela in a FIFA friendly. The high-profile international match — a first for India — has generated widespread excitement and is set to rake in an estimated $4.5 million from broadcasting, sponsorship and ticket sales. More than 100,000 people are expected at the Kolkata match, which will be telecast in 150 countries.

Messi's visit to India is part of a push to turn the country into one of the world's major soccer powers. India, an emerging economy with a billion-strong population, is certainly an attractive market. In January, FIFA chief Sepp Blatter called the country a "real power" and a possible host for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. "FIFA has always seen itself as the guardian and promoter of the world's game," says London-based sports-business expert Sean Hamil. "[The organization] has a long-term strategy to build up football participation in the country, just like it has been doing in other major developing countries."

FIFA has been working with India's top soccer body, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), since 2002 and has already invested about $10 million to develop infrastructure and talent. Now FIFA seems ready to play a more direct role. On Friday, two senior FIFA officials, technical director Jean Michel Bénézet and development director Thierry Regenass, will be in Kolkata to watch the game and chart a road map for developing a program aimed at producing soccer players of international quality. In a statement to TIME, FIFA said that, "India's full potential in football is, given the size of the country, enormous. And football clearly needs more development. We will be there to support the Indian Football Federation to reach higher goals." The AIFF is already working on a FIFA-supported elite soccer academy, which will draw on talents from smaller academies all over the country. Adding to that is Liverpool's plans to run a coaching academy on the outskirts of New Delhi, and India seems set to become a hub of soccer activity over the next few years.

That's good news for Indian soccer fans, who have yet to see a national team play in the World Cup. In 1950, the Indian team's quest ended before it began after FIFA ruled they could not play barefoot as they had planned. They've entered teams in the tournament since 1986, but they have yet to qualify. The immense popularity of cricket, the absence of a major elite league, poor management, ancient infrastructure and a lack of corporate interest continue to hobble the sport's development there.

The choice of venue for Friday's match is interesting. Kolkata has a long-standing soccer culture with a history of aggressive club competition. The city's competition has been dominated by rivalry between the city's two most celebrated teams, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Ten years ago, Kolkata came to a standstill every time the two teams played each other. This popularity has been gradually replaced with a similar fanaticism for cricket and international soccer, including European and Latin American leagues. "People want to watch the right kind of football. Nowadays viewers are more quality conscious," Kushal Das, the general secretary of the AIFF, told TIME.

Still, if India has a soccer capital, it will be Kolkata. More than a thousand Messi fans poured into the city's airport at 2 a.m. on Wednesday, many wearing his iconic No. 10 jersey. They danced and chanted his name while holding up life-size cutouts of the Argentinean. Those who couldn't be there, like Archita Mukherjee, a 33-year-old homemaker in Kolkata, are looking forward to watching Messi live in action on Friday. "I am so excited that my first outing at a football stadium is going to be one where I will get to watch the greatest god of soccer," she said. The organizers of Friday's match, the Kolkata-based Celebrity Management Group, are similarly enthusiastic. "An event like this will not only bring back a renewed interest in the game," says the company's executive director, Bhaswar Goswami, "but will also inspire an entire new generation."