The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Soccer shower with suspense

Mumbai, Oct. 16: Early next summer, the skies over Maharashtra will open up: to rain footballs in the smaller cities and towns.

Is that the bigger miracle or that David Beckham may just be the God who’ll come down to shower it with his blessing'

Helicopters will be hired to drop close to a lakh footballs over shanties and slums that dot the towns across the state to give a leg-up to the punctured popularity of the game that the rest of the world simply loves. And there is just this possibility that Beckham, of the famous wickedly swerving and venomously dipping free-kick and of the even more famous Posh Victoria Beckham Spice-inspired hairstyles, will kickstart the event.

Shailendra Singh is certainly hoping so. “We have brought in big stars like Boris Becker before,” said the managing director of event and celebrity management company Percept IMC and the brain behind the project.

If that was a shot at establishing credentials, the doubters stepped in to block it: Becker the fading star and Beckham the reigning poster boy are not the same thing. Singh isn’t ready to unwrap the gameplan yet, but is confident of getting the England captain over next April.

Why Beckham' Well, that was a sitter Singh promptly despatched to the back of the net. “India works on hype,” he said. And why Maharashtra' That was an easy one, too. Mumbai is the sponsorship capital, though Singh left it unsaid. What he did say was that football was very much alive and kicking in Maharashtra in the seventies and early eighties.

In that period, the local Harwood league was flourishing and the Rovers Cup got the big teams in from outside. Bollywood stars like Dilip Kumar, Pran, Jeetendra and singer Manna De were the famous fans who brought glamour to football when cricket hadn’t taken out a lease on tinsel.

Local teams like Orkay, Tatas and Mafatlal used to vie for honours with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Spectators have deserted the grounds — even at the so-called Mecca of Indian football, Calcutta, the following is not what it used to be — in Mumbai. And Singh wants to play pied piper.

For the National Championship that is being held in Imphal, Maharashtra picked a side for the pre-tournament camp that had 12 players from only one team: Mahindra United. But only one of them from Mumbai’s champion team has travelled to Imphal, the others crying off citing injury or personal inconvenience.

Singh is hoping to start the resurgence from small towns — Nagpur, Akola and Sholapur are on the shortlist.

But he’s also looking beyond. As an example, he points at Becker and tennis. After his visit to India, the three-time Wimbledon champion is very enthusiastic about the country, Singh said.

“Boris, who is a good friend of mine and Vijay (Amritraj) are keen to contribute to the cause of tennis in India. They are eager to conduct tennis clinics to train young enthusiasts. We are trying to figure out ways to do it.”

If, however, Beckham agrees to come, it’ll be because of the millions and not the cause of Maharashtra football.

The millions, Singh believes, won’t be too difficult to organise. “In India, there are no dearth of sponsors,” he said.

Even for a sport that has little following in that part of the country' If the free-kick doesn’t do it, the free-flowing hair — Beck’s current crop — could.

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