Kolkata, Oct 17: Despite his friends in India telling him football will never topple cricket and become the country's top sport, Alan Shearer, the all-time leading goal-scorer in the English Premier League (EPL), believes "these are exciting times" for the sport here with the FIFA Under-17 World Cup going on in full steam. "My friends here tell me that football is never going to be the number one sport in India and cricket will always have that title," the Newcastle United legend, who has 260 goals to his name, told IANS in an email interaction.
"But that does not mean stopping efforts to make Indian football bigger and better. I have seen first hand the enthusiasm for football in India and the Premier League's support will only help drive interest and encourage more people to play. This is a really exciting time for football in India and the U-17 World Cup is a great opportunity for India." India is hosting the U-17 World Cup for the first time and the country's players also gave a good account of themselves in three Group A matches against the United States, Colombia and Ghana before crashing out of the competition. The boys who took part in the tournament are slated to play in the I-League along with the U-19 boys, much on the lines of the Indian Arrows project which was disbanded four years ago. Shearer, though, feels working alongside federations and top leagues will help the players' development both on and off the pitch. "Working alongside other federations and Leagues, in the way the ISL already does with the (English) Premier League, will help their development and progression in terms of both the administration and playing. I hope the U-17 World Cup will drive more interest and inspire more young people to play football," said Shearer. Coming to the EPL 2017-18 title race, Shearer said although both Manchester clubs (Manchester United and Manchester City) have started well, it is very hard to put a finger on who will clinch the crown next May. "Both Manchester clubs have started the season well. Their new signings have settled in well and they have strength in depth. That said the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspurs and Arsenal are all still contenders. That's one of the great things about the Premier League -- it's so hard to predict," Shearer said. What does he make of the outlandish money being spent on footballers by a handful of rich clubs? "I think that the owners of PSG wanted to make a statement with the Neymar and Kylian Mbappe deals, which they clearly have done," Shearer said on French giants Paris-Saint Germain spending a whopping 222 million euros (Rs 17 billion) to buy Brazilian superstar Neymar from FC Barcelona. PSG also roped in French prodigy Mbappe from Ligue 1 rivals Monaco for what is likely to be the second-largest deal of all time. "We'll have to wait and see what the consequences of the deals are and whether this changes the football landscape -- there's no doubting they are quality players," Shearer said. The former England marksman tipped new Three Lions captain and Tottenham striker Harry Kane to break his goalscoring record, adding Manchester United's Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku has a chance too. "In Harry Kane I can now see a player who can top the total of 260 goals I amassed with Blackburn and Newcastle. I wouldn't rule out Romelu Lukaku either," he felt. On England's chances in next year's World Cup in Russia, Shearer said: "We seem to approach every major tournament with optimism and hope. In recent tournaments, our expectations have been more realistic but we've still been disappointed. "Going into the World Cup in Russia, I think we will be more realistic. But Wales have shown at Euro 2016, with good organisation and a couple of stars in your side you can progress to the latter stages of the tournament and, as a fan, of course I hope that England go as far as they can." The 47-year-old was in India to interact with the attendees of an EPL fan park event held in Bengaluru, where roughly 40,000 spectators watched the top matches of the weekend on a giant screen.