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It’s kick-off time

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The ten-week league kicking off from October promises to breathe life into the game in India and generate enough interest

By Gaurav Kalra

“Let’s football” is the official chant of the Indian Super League (ISL). At a glitzy launch in Mumbai last month, its organizers weren’t shy of indulging in hyperbole. The event, they claimed, ushered in the “birth of a footballing nation”. On stage were owners of the eight clubs (franchises) which will take part in the tournament. And they included some of the well-known faces from Indian cricket, business and the film industry.

The league is the first-of-its-kind experiment in India, unrestrained in its ambition and scale. Nita Ambani, the founding chairperson of the league, described its launch as a “momentous day.” Co-promoted by the International Management Group (IMG) and Reliance, Ambani proclaimed that ISL was expected to build “a grand coalition among all stakeholders to develop football and take it to its deserving space in Indian sports. ISL hopes to act as a foundation in creating an eco-system to nurture talent and make our own national football heroes, through its ambitious grassroots development program”.

However, the wholehearted backing of the project by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) did cause a fair amount of heartburn in the lead-up to the event. Owners of several existing I-league clubs were up in arms when the project was first announced. The clubs feared that ISL would threaten their very existence. However later, tensions palpably reduced among key stakeholders. A couple of ISL clubs, Goa FC and North East FC, aligned with their local I-league teams. Players from I-league teams, such as Salgaocar, Dempo and Shillong Lajong FC were also selected for these ISL teams.

AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das is happy with the increasing synergy between teams from the two competitions. “We have players from big clubs loaned to the ISL, and there is some association between clubs and ISL teams. This will benefit Indian football as a whole,” he says.

The federation’s enthusiasm in embracing ISL is understandable. With India’s international ranking languishing in the 150s and the I-league failing to generate much interest among broadcasters or failing to attract a strong fan base, the ISL offers an opportunity to breathe life into the sport. Das says: “Over the last few years, the AIFF is trying to develop the bottom of the pyramid, and to a certain extent, we have been successful. What we need now is something of a top-down approach, where there is visibility, and obviously commerce, for us to carry on the activity. The ISL is aimed exactly at that.”

The commercial success of the league will depend almost entirely on the television ratings it generates. From October 12 to Dec-ember 20 this year, 61 matches are scheduled on a home-and-away format. Matches will begin at 7pm IST, making them a prime time offering. The semi-finals will be played on a two-legged format before the finalists are identified for the summit clash.

India figures poorly in world football rankings and struggles to qualify for international  tournaments
India figures poorly in world football rankings and struggles to qualify for international

The Chief Operating Officer of Star India, the broadcast partners of ISL, Sanjay Gupta, is upbeat about its potential. “Football is much more than a sport. It is an international phenomenon. And yet, India as a country has not joined this global community,” he says. “This marks a historic turning point for the future of football in this country as we take our first steps to join the world community,” he added.

The organizers are counting on the presence of several high-profile players and coaches that will draw in audiences. Four recent World Cup winners, Joan Capdevilla (Spain, 2010), Allesandro del Piero, (Italy, 2006), Robert Pires and David Trezeguet (France 1998), are among the 56 international players who will feature in the league.

Among the other attractions are former Newcastle player Michael Chopra, former Sweden captain Freddy Ljundberg and former Barcelona player Luis Garcia. Another marquee signing is Brazil legend Zico as coach of Goa FC.

However, will the presence of these players, most of them well past their prime, really be attractive? Pires is 40, Del Piero 39, Ljundberg 37 and Capdevilla, Garcia and Trezeguet are 36. Cynics have long argued that players at this stage in their careers view such opportunities as a “retirement benefit” of sorts, the last chance at a substantial payday before walking into the sunset.
Also, over the last few years, Indians have become accustomed to watching the best players of the world in action. Fierce loyalties have developed for top league teams from England, Spain, Italy and Germany even as football in India has stagnated. To create appetite for a league that will certainly not offer the same playing standards or star power will be a huge challenge.

The team owners, however, are promising a new dawn. Mumbai City FC co-owner and actor Ranbir Kapoor says: “We just want to build a team for Mumbai, a team which all 20 million Mumbaikars can call their own. A team that showcases quality, engaging and entertaining football.” Varun Dhavan of Goa FC assures his team will play “a brand of football that is going to be exciting, attacking; it is going to live up to the fun and peppy type of lifestyle that you see in Goa and yet, it is going to be very aggressive and competitive.”

Legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, the co-owner of Kerala Blasters, is keen to emphasize the long-term impact of ISL. “The happy moment for me would be when India as a nation would be recognized as the healthiest and fittest nation in the world,” he says. “I personally feel that in such a big nation, talent is there but possibly, there is no right platform or not enough opportunities to express their talent,” he laments.

While football enjoys a passionate fan following, it is mired in cynicism and despair in India. The ISL is an attempt to bridge this rapidly increasing gap.

Over the course of the event, India will truly discover if a “new footballing nation” is ready to be born.

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