WHEN PRIME Minister Narendra Modi announced a football tournament for BRICS nations in the Russian city of Ufa last month, the loudest cheers came from Indian and Brazilian business leaders. That is because the business communities in these two countries have been working hard since the past year to script an event around the ‘beautiful game’ for member countries of BRICS. In fact, in May last year, Indian and Brazilian business leaders had gotten together in New Delhi to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to organise a football championship for U-17 teams from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
“The football championship symbolises the coming together of BRICS nations and their industries,” says Ajay Sharma, senior director, Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), which hosted the MoU signing ceremony.
Football to factory
With BRICS nations accounting for 46% of the world’s population and a burgeoning middle-class, the championship offers an opportunity to members like India and Brazil—which have meager trade with each other—to expand business beyond the football pitch. Perhaps that explains why industry representatives of both countries mooted the idea of a BRICS football tournament in the first place. “The time has come for Indian and Brazilian industry leaders to do business with each other,” says Joao Gilberto Vaz, a Brazilian tech business leader. “Both Brazil and India are ideal partners for business, but we need to come together,” says Vaz, who led the Brazilian initiative in launching the championship. Agrees Assocham’s Sharma, “At the industry level, we are very bullish. We stand to gain by doing business with each other.”
Assocham, which has created an internal body for strengthening sports infrastructure in the country, even hosted an industry reception for Jerome Valcke, secretary general of world football governing body Fifa, when he visited the country last year.
As per the World Trade Organization, trade between India and Brazil accounted for less than a tenth—$9.5 billion—of India-China bilateral trade in 2013. This is in sharp contrast to intra-BRICS trade at $276 billion, as per 2012 figures.
The football championship, however, could help more businesses like India’s Tata Consultancy Services, which is doing good business in Brazil, and Brazilian automobile giant Marco Polo, which is popular in India, to move beyond their shores.
The trade statistics between India and Brazil reflect on the football field too. There is a huge difference between the countries when it comes to playing the most popular sport in the world. While Brazil ranks fifth in the world, India’s position is a lowly 156 out of 208 Fifa members. Russia, which will host the 2018 Fifa World Cup, ranks 31, while South Africa and China rank 72 and 79, respectively. “Young Indian football players need all the exposure they can get,” says Kushal Das, general secretary, All India Football Federation (AIFF), the national football governing body in India. With India slated to host the Fifa U-17 World Cup in 2017, the BRICS championship in the same age category will be a testing ground for talent for the AIFF as well. India’s U-17 team is already in Germany for a two-month training period, while the U-16 team will take part in the Asian Football Championship in Iran next month before heading to Spain to play against “some good Spanish clubs”, as per Das.
Pitch & politics
Support from the Indian government has been crucial for the inaugural BRICS tournament. Prime Minister Modi had pitched for stronger sporting relations within the group when he visited Brazil for last year’s BRICS summit.
“We were delighted by Prime Minister Modi’s statement about organising a football meet in India next year,” beams Vaz, who has already travelled to BRICS capitals to gather support for the U-17 championship.
India’s ministries of external affairs, youth affairs and sports have since collaborated with Indian and Brazilian business leaders, who did the early work for the championship. A meeting of these ministries and the AIFF will be held in September to firm up plans for the BRICS Cup, which is to be held in New Delhi around April next year. “We are waiting for a formal communication from the government to start preparations for the tournament,” says Das.
Das’ counterpart in China has already welcomed the championship. In a letter of support, Zhang Jian, general secretary, Chinese Football Association, said the tournament could build “an immense platform to create communities, encourage friendship and, most importantly, share diverse BRICS cultural backgrounds.”
For Indian and Brazilian business people, the ball has already been set in motion.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer