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International khiladi

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AIMING HIGH: Gary Neville plays with the Manchester United Soccer Schools' trainees at the Cooperage ground in Mumbai

Not only are legends like Steve McMahon and Paul Breitner flying down to handpick talent from Akola to Shillong and from Lucknow to Indore, but their respective clubs too are pitching tents here to test and train.

Considering the speed with which European football has wowed Indian audiences, it was only a matter of time before the legendary clubs crossed the seas to bring their brand of football, via academies and clinics, to India. From biggies like Premier League and German giants Bayern Munich, they've all touched Indian shores.

While most clubs make their presence felt through talent hunts conducted across cities where a selected few are offered training stints at the team's base, there are others like Chelsea who have tied-up with the Indian Tigers Football Academy (ITFA). They send their coaches to Mumbai once every quarter.

Manchester United, arguably the world's most followed club, is the only team to have set up a permanent base in the country, operating out of the Cooperage Stadium in Mumbai. The club kicked off training sessions earlier this year and the Rs 22, 600 tag for a two-week session hasn't been a deterrent for the 250 students who have just finished the course. The sessions have been such a success that the academy has recorded 40 per cent retention of students for the next batch with a similar module.

Liverpool has also made its presence felt by lending support to the Steve McMahon Football Academy (SMFA) that has centres in Noida and Delhi. McMahon, a former Liverpool captain, runs the academy that charges Rs 45, 000 as a year-long subscription fee which covers 78 days of training. The Reds' other project, Go Forward, kicked off in Mumbai last year and targeted students from municipal schools. Liverpool legends Ian Rush and Phil Thompson visited Mumbai to help shortlist a select bunch from among 2, 000 children. Those selected will be handed a training stint with the club's academy.

German giants, Bayern Munich, too let India know how serious they are about a regular association when they sent club legend and ambassador, Paul Breitner, to overlook a talent hunt. The winners will be gifted with a trip to Munich.

Covering the length and breadth of the country is Serie A club Inter Milan's Soccer Stars programme that touches 15 cities across four regions in India. Apart from the major cities, the tournament also travels to smaller destinations like Shillong, Gangtok, Akola, Lucknow, Bhubhaneshwar and Indore. Sixteen of the selected participants get to experience the training methods at Inter in Italy. Premier League giant Arsenal, too, has been associated with a similar initiative for the past few years.

Such has been the attraction to train with clubs of international repute that Indian academies regularly organise clinics for their students at clubs abroad. The Premier India Football Academy (PIFA) has tie-ups with academies in the UK where students get the chance to train with coaches from big European clubs.

"We've taken around 500 students over the last eight years to train with coaches from clubs like Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers and AC Milan and that says a lot about the willingness of parents to spend money in order to give their children a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The training methods are the same, the students get to meet players, play games against local teams and even watch a league game live. It's every footballers dream come true, " says Anjali Shah of PIFA.

The Kenkre Football Academy too makes regular trips to compete at tournaments abroad and CEO Joshua Lewis feels that the parents realise that the big amounts of money spent on these trips are absolutely worth the exposure their children receive. "We've been to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Spain and Singapore and there are many students who have made all the trips. It just tells you how much of an effect it has on them."

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