BIG. That may well be what the Indian Super League (ISL) of football is. BIG in capital letters. Nothing is small here. Glitz. Glamour. Money. TV. Stars. That really should have been enough for any sport to take off and flourish in next to no time. Except that this is India and the sport is football. It has everything you could have imagined.
Whoops, did we say everything? Well, almost. Except that India ranks among the bottom quarter of a footballing universe that has more than 200 countries.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter calls India the “sleeping giant of world football”. Well, the giant has not woken up in a long, long time.
No, it is not that no one played football in India — since 1888, the country has been the home of the Durand Cup, the world’s third oldest tournament; it has also been home to the Rovers Cup, which was started three years later; as well as the IFA Shield — the only competitions older than it were the English and Scottish FA Cup.
Seldom, if ever, has the ‘birth’ or ‘rebirth’ of a league in a footballing nation ranked 158th in the world received such global attention — British and American newspapers, BBC, CNN and TV stations from all over the world reported on its inauguration this week.
According to industry estimates, the amount of money that has been pumped into the ISL is Rs 600 crore. And this, my friends, is only the start.
Saying that was no less than the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, who was quoted by The Economic Times as saying, “The ultimate objective of the new league is to raise the bar of the game to the extent that India can send a team to the World Cup.”
He went on to add, “The quality of Indian football is going to improve more. This is just the beginning… to achieve that ultimate goal, whatever is needed will be done. From my side, I am always there.”
Ambani, who has of late invested a lot in sport — his company Reliance Industries also owns the Mumbai Indians, a successful team in the Indian Premier League. Reliance has also partnered IMG to set up India’s biggest sports management company — IMG-Reliance.
Apart from running the ISL, IMG- Reliance also has a 30-year partnership with the Basketball Federation of India and they are also helping develop the Jr. NBA programme. They sure think and invest big. Sports management doesn’t get bigger than IMG-Reliance.
For title sponsorship, the ISL has Hero MotoCorp, whose managing director, Pawan Munjal, loves golf to the extent that he got Tiger Woods to come over and play a round with him and his friends at the Delhi Golf Club. Not just that, he is also going to sponsor Woods’ own tournament, the Hero World Challenge, with a purse of $3.5 million plus a similar amount spent on organising the tournament.
Sponsors don’t come bigger than Hero. It is a company that once put unimaginable amounts into cricket, but is now looking at hockey and football, and the sports fans could not have been happier. India has just won the Asian Games hockey gold after a gap of 16 years and has become the first team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro.
The ISL’s broadcast partner is Star Sports, which recently bought international cricket rights from 2015 to 2023.
Big businessmen, big channels, big sponsors. And yes, in India, you also need Bollywood stars. They don’t get any bigger than Amitabh Bachchan. He was there at the opening ceremony. And invested in the ISL are the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachchan, all superstars by themselves.
If Bollywood is there, can cricket be far behind? So what if it is football? Sachin Tendulkar — yes, cricketers don’t get bigger than him — is there, and so are Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sourav Ganguly and Virat Kohli — all brand ambassadors and co-owners.
So, what about the footballers? They, too, are there. Only they are a bit older than expected, but each one with a cabinet full of trophies and medals that would be the envy of every budding star.
Italian World Cup winners Alessandro del Piero and Marco Materazzi are there; as are Spain’s Joan Capdevila and Luis Garcia and French stars David Trezeguet and Robert Pires. Add to them Nicolas Anelka, Freddie Ljungberg and others.
The roster of managers/coaches is no less. It has the likes of Brazilian legend Zico, Peter Reid and Ricki Herbert.
With TV production of almost the same quality as the English Premier League (EPL), Spanish La Liga or the Italian Serie A, the viewer can’t ask for more. Top it all, the Indian boys are rubbing shoulders with some of the legends of the game, even if somewhat past their prime.
Marquee players such as Ljungberg are said to be earning almost £60,000 a month — about Rs 60 lakh — and they will be needed for about three months. There will be others who earn anything between £20,000 to £50,000. Indian players too are getting around £10,000- £30,000 a month.
The stadia staging the matches can accommodate as many as 60,000 (Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi) to 120,000 (Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata) and the fans are happy because with the advent of the ISL, seats, bathrooms and other facilities are being improved in stadia, which otherwise lie in a state of disuse.
The urban Indian youth loves to watch EPL matches; they also buy expensive EPL merchandise and there are at least 20-odd European clubs that have started some kind of enterprise in the country, including coaching stints, promotional events and tours.
And yes, India will also be hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017. Who knows, an Indian Under-17 team might make the kind of waves that could be just the kind of a catalyst Indian football needs to make a charge and challenge for a place in the 2026 or even the 2030 World Cup.
We still don’t know whether Indian football will suddenly wake up from its slumber and take the world by storm. Some pundits are cautious and warn that changes won’t happen or will not be seen for another 10-15 years.
So what? We have at least made a start. The first couple of ISL matches showed that cricket finally does have competition. And we are loving it. N Srinivasan, better watch out. Football is here. And maybe, even to stay.