The Indian Super League (ISL) promises to usher in a new dawn. It has set the stage and invited big starsfrom Alessandro Del Piero to Nicolas Anelka, Freddie Ljungberg, Luis Garcia, David James, David Trezeguet and Zico (as coach).
Never mind that the players are past their prime, for all of them are still big enough for a country ranked 158th in the world. They can help Indian football get rid of its inferiority complex and dream big. At last, theres ripple on stagnant water and if the arrival of the overseas stars can help Indian footballers improve their quality even by 1% it would be beneficial.
We hope this tournament will change the football map of the country, Sourav Ganguly, co-owner of Atletico de Kolkata, had said during a press conference a few weeks ago. After the opening game at Salt Lake Stadium last Sunday, he said: Ive been to this venue many times, but never ever did I think the stadium would look like this. It feels great that football is getting huge attention.
Tournament chairperson Nita Ambani agreed. Its going to be a long journey but we all are going to support football. In the end, the support will make football win.
The stadiums are refurbished. Players tunnels and locker rooms have received fresh coats of paint. Corporate boxes have been set up IPL-style and the dug-outs look comfortable and specious. There are promotional events and team anthems. The party has begun.
Six matches have been played so far and all attracted big turnouts. Del Pieros debut for Delhi Dynamos at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was phenomenal. Sixty-thousand fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted his name as the Italian master came as a substitute. Even the match officials, used to deal with the Odafas and the Martins, looked a bit awestruck. Star-starved, they should be allowed this tiny bit of leeway.
One week into the show, and ISL has managed to make a global impact. It would be wrong to compare this football gala with IPL. Cricket is a religion in this country and nothing comes close. But ISL has had a big financial outlay of its own, big enough to change things for better.
To start with, it is the second largest sporting event of the country after IPL. An estimated R800 crore have been spent on this football league. The organiser, IMG-Reliance, and its media partner Star India have spent R300 crore, while the franchises have shelled out R350 crore (around R65 crore of which went to players payment, including marquee signings). A further R150 crore have been spent in advertisement and sponsorship. It is big in terms of investment. Will it be profitable
We are not here for money. We are here because we love this sport and want to give Indian football a big push. We are here because we want to catch the imagination of the fans through the beautiful game, said Ganguly.
About the projects financial viability, he, however, sounded a note of caution. I dont know when we will break even, doesnt seem so in the near future. Theres also a possibility we may never break even. Nobody knows what the future has got in store for any sport in India, other than cricket, the former India cricket captain told a news agency in a recent interview. Football thrives in fan following and the success of ISL depends on creating a proper, knowledgeable fan base. Every franchise must have their own group of fans, as ardent as we see in European football. It will take time but the process must begin in right earnest.
It is very likely that a few years down the line, I-League will merge with this cash-rich football show. Indias premier club contest wont survive without ISLs support. At the same time, the franchise-based league needs a bigger window (10 weeks is too short a period) to be considered a proper tournament. In the process of gracious give and take, the rich will eventually gobble up the poor. ISL will be predominant if it can turn its initial success into sustainable results.
The tournament needs quality Indian players to strike a chord with the local fans. The hype surrounding the ageing overseas pros will gradually die down once the Premier League and La Liga resume this weekend, following the international break. After watching Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Angel Di Maria and Wayne Rooney live on telly, the Del Pieros and the Anelkas wont whet the appetite. The Indians have to achieve stardom. ISL, at the moment, has a six-five foreigners-domestic ratio. The home-grown players look much inferior to the outsiders in terms of skill and technique. The Indian players must improve and become good enough to reverse the ratio.
Proper youth development is the only way to progress. Franchises have to be serious about this. Teams like Atletico de Kolkata and FC Pune City will benefit from their association with Atletico Madrid and Fiorentina respectively. But, for a football non-entity like India, a common road map is urgently required. Sir Alex Ferguson or Johan Cruyff would be too big in our context. How about inviting Eric Harrisonthe man who nurtured Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Nicky Butt at Manchester United Tapping into his expertise and experience will help Indian football.