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I was in Zurich when Switzerland defeated Spain in one of the league matches of the ongoing World Cup. The entire city had come to a standstill for those 90 minutes and every positive move of their men on the field in South Africa was enjoyed to the hilt. When they scored the solitary goal of the match, it felt as if the city screamed in unison. And the celebrations became wilder as the evening progressed. The roads were blocked and the trams were stalled, which caused problems for commuters, but no one complained. After all, their country had scored an unexpected win over a stronger opposition in the World Cup.
I couldn't help but think - why are the cheers back home not loud enough? Yes, we do celebrate our wins in the World Cup, yet not every win and definitely not in this manner. And I'm sure India is not alone in this. Most cricket-playing countries can perhaps never match the euphoria of a soccer-playing nation after a win. So, what's the difference? Are the people from football-playing nations more patriotic? Or is it the popularity of football worldwide that builds the excitement? It's neither the patriotism nor the popularity - the reasons lie elsewhere.
Football is mainly a club-oriented sport played in various competitive leagues. Countries don't play against each other that often and hence, whenever they do, fans are bound to get involved.
On the contrary, cricket is predominately a country v country sport and in order to keep the moolah coming, we have, perhaps, abused it to the extent that it doesn't hold the same charm anymore. While the cricket World Cup is still a coveted tournament, it lacks the novelty of its football counterpart.
No, I'm not suggesting more leagues like the IPL around the world because a paucity of good cricketers and cricket-playing nations is a huge limitation. You may change the name of the league and the venue but since the players are going to be more or less the same, it won't succeed.
So, what's the next best thing? Maybe reducing the number of matches every nation plays or at least getting rid of meaningless tournaments like the one India just played in Zimbabwe. But if even this is not possible it won't be a bad idea to take a leaf out of FIFA's book.
Despite being extremely popular, FIFA hasn't left any stone unturned to take football to the next level by adding new followers. FIFA has organized Fan Fests around the world by hiring a big arena, almost the size of a football field, split into two. On one side they would put up a huge screen which shows the live coverage with an open but carpeted field in front of it for people to watch the game. The other half is utilized to create a small football field with even smaller goalposts for kids. The idea is to encourage parents to bring their kids to the arena and enjoy the experience. While parents enjoy the game, their kids are happy playing it. There're also food stalls around the arena to make everyone's stay comfortable.
The ICC can also do something similar involving their sponsors, mainly in countries where they intend to or have already introduced cricket. It is important to make the World Cup a marquee event - one incomparable to whatever the fans are watching throughout the year. It must also be used as a vehicle to spread the game to unchartered territories.Everyone can't make it to the stadium to watch the game, so it won't be a bad idea if they're given a taste of it elsewhere. The ICC has nearly nine months to figure out a plan so that 2011 World Cup doesn't flop like the 2007 version in the West Indies.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.