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Sports

Seeking India's future soccer stars

Ex-Bundesliga striker Wynton Rufer once set his sights on scoring goals for Werder Bremen. Now he aims to raise soccer’s profile in India, and possibly create some future stars for one of football’s "sleeping giants."

The excitement was clearly palpable when the school children were told that they would now be under the tutelage of a striker who won both the German league and a European trophy with Werder Bremen.

After a rigorous selection process, the youngsters, some from underprivileged backgrounds, could not hide their glee at been chosen to train with New Zealander Wynton Rufer - named by FIFA at the millennium as Oceania Footballer of the Century.

At the German Embassy in New Delhi, the select bunch was told they would go through intensive training over the next couple of months. There, they met Rufer, pictured above holding the ball, and German ambassador Michael Steiner. The youngsters will also play friendly matches with some of the best talent for their age group, including some of the country's best-established youth sides.

Tunir Kaushik, 16, was one of some 100 youngsters chosen. "This is truly a dream come true," said Tunir. "Now, I will get a chance to play friendly matches with some top-ranked clubs and I am sure we will do well with this expert coaching."

Another student, Umar Zaidi, 15, was equally excited. "I have always thought that Germany was a great football nation. And I hope this experience with our coach Rufer will pay off and I can sharpen my skills in the coming weeks and months," Umar told DW.

The hope remains that some members of the group may eventually go abroad to hone their skills.

Cricket crowds out the rest

As well as starring for European Cup Winners Bremen from 1989 to 1996, Rufer was a former member of the New Zealand team which qualified for the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, has been a three-time winner of the Oceania Footballer of the Year Award.

Life after football has given him new challenges, including humanitarian work in Ethiopia. However, Rufer explained to DW that his latest project was all about India.

Though football is popular enough in the country, it is eclipsed by the national obsession with cricket. Recently, India has fallen down in the FIFA rankings ladder and now finds itself in the 169th slot alongside Nepal and placed 31st in the continent.

"I thought this was a great occasion to do a talent hunt in India. I know cricket is popular but there is some amazing promise here and let's see how this exercise pans out. My dream is to get some Indians to play for the Bundesliga at some point," Rufer told DW.

Football as diplomacy

Two years back FIFA president Sepp Blatter, said "sleeping giant" India was slowly waking up and urged authorities to develop its football infrastructure and improve playing standards if it wanted to successfully host major events. He even hinted that India could host the 2026 World Cup.

Yuvraj Singh of India 'A' bats during the final day of the first practice match between England and India 'A' (Photo by Pal Pillai/Getty Images)

While football is the world's favorite sport, cricket is overwhelmingly the most popular past time in India

After friendly matches with some top-ranked clubs and countries, the Indian football team also had an occasion to play against the German club Bayern Munich early last year. Back in 2009, Bayern visited India to play friendly matches in the cities of Kolkata and Siliguri. The club's former goalkeeper Oliver Kahn played his farewell match in that tour.

Germany's ambassador to India Michael Steiner believed that sport, especially football, would only act as a bridge to foster better ties between both countries.

"We have good bilateral ties in trade and politics but sport is also important to connect with people and I think soccer is a great opportunity," Steiner told DW.

"My personal dream is that India will ‘kick it like Germany' one day - and, who knows, we will see the first football match ever between India and Germany," added Steiner.

DW.DE