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India has soccer fever, but is it World Cup-ready?

Jeja Lalpekhlua of Chennaiyin FC in action against Atletico De Kolkata during their ISL semi-final match on December 16, 2015.
Prateek Choudhury | Hindustan Times | Getty Images
Jeja Lalpekhlua of Chennaiyin FC in action against Atletico De Kolkata during their ISL semi-final match on December 16, 2015.

India has gradually acquired a passion for soccer but it may still be a long way off from international acclaim.

Asia's third-largest economy has never made it to the FIFA World Cup despite a 1.3 billion strong population, high economic growth rates and a sports-mad public. It has only qualified once, by default for the 1950 tournament in Brazil, but ended up withdrawing due to financial constraints.

India shines in cricket and wrestling, but a lack of investment and local talent has limited the beautiful game's ascent, pushing audiences to foreign clubs instead. In the past, most fans had little choice but to support the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Real Madrid while skilled players typically sought opportunities abroad.

Baichung Bhutia was the first Indian player to sign a contract with a European club in 1999 when he joined Bury F.C, paving the way for contemporaries like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu of Norway's Stabaek.

But that's slowly changing thanks to the 2013 launch of the Indian Super League (ISL) or Hero Indian Super League, which aims to elevate Indian soccer to an international level and develop grassroots programs to groom local players. Its second season is currently underway, with finals slated for Sunday.

There are eight ISL clubs, all of which boast top-notch foreign talent. Italy's Marco Materrazzi, famous for being head-butted in the chest by French star Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup, is the head coach of Chennaiyin FC, while Brazilian legends Roberto Carlos and Zico coach the Delhi Dynamos and FC Goa, respectively.

After playing for the Kerala Blasters at the ISL's inaugural season last year, Scottish-born Canadian Iain Hume is now a striker at Athletico de Kolkata (ATK). Speaking to CNBC ahead of ATK's semi-final match against Chennaiyin FC, the former Leicester City star said he's witnessed firsthand the transformation of the sport in India.

"I think the incorporation of more foreign and experienced players has helped massively, not just for the domestic players' development, but for the fans as well—to be able to have more recognized faces playing for their local teams."

Brimming stadiums and avid enthusiasts are certainly proof of that.

This year's ISL season has seen a 5 percentage point increase in terms of stadium fill compared to 2014, broadcaster Star India told CNBC. Meanwhile the average time spent by television viewers has spiked 36 percent on year.

Delhi Dynamos FC Brazilian forward Gustavo Marmentini dos Santos (L) shoots the ball past FC Goa's Indian forward CS Sabeeth during the semi-final football match on December 11, 2015
SAJJAD HUSSAIN | AFP | Getty Images
Delhi Dynamos FC Brazilian forward Gustavo Marmentini dos Santos (L) shoots the ball past FC Goa's Indian forward CS Sabeeth during the semi-final football match on December 11, 2015

"I think the love for the game in India has always been there, but now having it marketed a lot better and having all the matches televised, it's made it accessible to everybody," said 32-year old Hume, who jokes that he's unable to visit local shops without being bombarded by photo requests.

More importantly, the quality of play has improved as well.

As of December 13, the ISL season has witnessed 50 more goals than 2014, Star India noted, adding that teams have also displayed better passing accuracy, more shots, a better goal conversion rate, and eight hat-tricks, versus just one last year.

But can all this local fever translate into a World Cup qualification?

"We are simply not good enough, yet," said Scott O'Donnell, technical director of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing institution for the sport. "We have to continue to do what we started years ago: getting more boys and girls playing football."

So far, India has lost all five of their matches for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and is currently ranked 166th in FIFA's global rankings, but the national team still has a shot at qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup.

Some of the key hindrances to popularizing the sport are the absence of good facilities nationwide, the reluctance of parents to allow their children to play soccer instead of studying, as well as a lack of competitions for young players, O'Donnell explained. The organization is hoping to resolve the latter obstacle by commencing a national league for players under 15 this year.

"We need to create a football culture in India. Football is on television every day of the week but we need to convert those fans from observers to participants."

Indeed, several developing nations face similar issues. China, India's top economic rival in Asia, has bolstered its international presence by undertaking a slew of recent deals as President Xi Jinping aims to transform the world's second-largest economy into a soccer superpower. Earlier this month, Chinese consortium CMC invested $400 million for a 13 percent stake in City Football Group, owners of Manchester City.

Despite the obstacles, ATK's Hume believes the standard of the game in India will only get better and better.

"The whole infrastructure has changed thanks to the ISL, and players are getting more in depth and experienced coaching. And with all the grassroots academy system being implemented all over the country, the growth of the sport will continue to rise for the foreseeable future!"

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