With a population of a 1.2 billion of which a massive 47% are below the age of 24, India represents a huge market for football. The beautiful game has a significant following among the Indian youth especially in the major urban areas, who constitute a massive demographic to be tapped in order to spread the world’s most watched sport in the cricket crazy nation.
Yet the efforts to popularize the game in the country have been shoddy at best. The current I-League that came into being in 2007 after the old National Football League got disbanded has been abysmal in attracting crowds. The stadia infrastructure is derelict, attendances low, quality of football dismal, and worst of all no hope in sight for the near future.
In a new attempt to revamp the football scene in India, the governing body of country’s football, All India Football Federation (AIFF) backed by IMG – Reliance will be kick starting the first season of Indian Super League. An eight team league with no promotion-relegation based system that will run from October till December.
Much like the beginnings of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the United States in the early 1970s, the organizers are mixing up past-their-prime international stars with Indian footballers to attract spectators. Italians Alessandro del Piero, and Marco Materazzi, Englishman David James, Frenchmen Robert Pires, and David Trezeguet, and the Swede Freddie Ljunberg are among a host of international stars who have signed up for the inaugural season.
The league comprises of eight teams, based in major Indian cities. These are backed by some of the richest corporate houses and individuals in the country. One of the teams Kerala Blasters is owned by former Indian cricket maestro Sachin Tendulkar, FC Pune City, and Mumbai City FC are owned by Indian film stars Salman Khan, and Ranbir Kapoor respectively in collaboration with big business firms. Some of the teams are in association with established European giants, Atlético de Madrid, Fiorentina, and Feyenoord have stakes in Atlético de Kolkata, FC Pune City, and Delhi Dynamos FC respectively.
Their involvement will ensure that funding will not be an issue, which has been one of the perennial problems of any sport not called cricket in India. In a rare act of foresight the AIFF selected teams on the promise that the owners spend the money on grassroots football in their catchment areas. This will ensure that the clubs aren’t just running after famous but retired or semi retired players to sell merchandise and increase footfalls in the stadia but actually working to improve the infrastructure and promote young Indian players which will strengthen the national team.
All this bodes well for the aspiring footballers, who will get a big stage to showcase their skills and the fact the league will be broadcast live on national television will ensure that if they are up to the mark international scouts aren’t far away to arrange trials with bigger teams abroad. The cricket version of the tournament Indian Premier League (IPL) did exactly the same for budding cricketers who all of a sudden came to the limelight and made their debuts for the Indian national team soon enough, without the IPL exposure they would have toiled far longer.
Critics of the league argue the need for it considering the current I-League is still played and whose start has been delayed to accommodate ISL. It is a valid criticism too. It would have been entirely possible to introduce changes in the existing league. New teams could have been given direct entry to the league just like the current champions Bengaluru FC, who won the tournament in their inaugural season after being given direct entry to the league in 2013-14 season.
After much wrangling and resistance from the team owners of I-League for the release of their players for the three month long league they finally came to an agreement and relented.
So far there is nothing to indicate how the two leagues will exist in the long run. Will there be a merger in the future between the two leagues once it gains traction among the followers, or will the new league completely replace the older one? The possibility of the ISL being disbanded after a few seasons can’t be ruled out either in case it doesn’t prove profitable for the owners.
All these conjectures will remain just that till at least the first season comes to its conclusion, after which we can make informed judgments. The test for the newest entrant on Indian football will begin on the 12th October when the first match kicks off between Atlético de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC at the 120,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium.
Indian football fans hope this tournament finally wakes up the sleeping giant.