Neha Shah slammed hard on the brakes. After letting out a silent curse, she picked up her cell phone and started typing… “Traffucked. Will be late by 20 mins or so.” And hit send. Navigating a car in and around Connaught Place in New Delhi can be a pain in the ass on any given day. This Saturday, things were only getting worse.
Thirty minutes later, Neha rushed inside the sports bar. In a dark corner, she found some familiar faces, eyeballs glued to a giant television screen.
“Guys, what did I miss?” she asked.
“Nothing much… Oh, Wenger got so pissed off that he got into a shoving match with Mourinho,” replied one of her friends.
As Chelsea and Arsenal battled in London for bragging rights and three points in the English Premier League, thousands of fans like Neha were busy attending live screenings at pubs and drawing rooms all over India.
Neha, 27, is a freelance photographer. She is equally passionate about Chelsea and never misses a match on the weekend. Come 12 October, her loyalty to a football club in a faraway land will be tested. That’s when the Delhi Dynamos and seven other clubs from across the country embark on a brave new adventure called the Indian Super League (ISL).
The ISL is the brainchild of sports management company IMG-Reliance, which inked a deal worth Rs 700 crore with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2010 to develop the beautiful game in the country. The original blueprint included an overhaul of the existing I-League but that plan ran into trouble. ISL was the answer.
A fierce bidding war in April saw cricket stars, Bollywood’s finest and business magnates throw their money around. In the end, eight cities/states/ regions were selected: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Goa, Kerala, Pune, Bengaluru and the Northeast (in August, the Bengaluru franchise was disbanded and Chennai filled in the gap). The final line-up was: Atletico de Kolkata, Chennaiyin FC, Delhi Dynamos, FC Goa, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City, Northeast United and Pune City (see graphic, p40).
The Indian football fan has always been a unique breed. Until the 1990s, quality football coverage on the television had been restricted to World Cups every four years. The advent of the Star TV network went on to change the game. The English Premier League ensured that fans in the subcontinent got a regular dose of the beautiful game every weekend. The cult of the Red Devils and Gunners found brand-new believers.
Soon, replica jerseys started to flood sports stores. Fan clubs began to sprout all over. The fanatics needed a new adda and sports bars mushroomed.
The stunning success of the Indian Premier League spawned copycats in the fields of hockey, badminton and kabaddi. Obviously, football was going to be the next big bet. But there is a catch. When it comes to cricket, hockey and kabaddi, India has a talent pool that can give the best in the world a run for their money. However, in football, the gulf in quality borders on the shameful. Team India occupies a lowly 158 in the FIFA world rankings. Heck, they even lost 2-3 to Palestine on home soil in a recent friendly.
So, will anybody pay to watch 20th century football on the pitch when they can catch Europe’s finest on the telly? That’s where the marquee players come in. Each team has an imported superstar in its ranks along with half-a-dozen foreign players. Juventus legend Alessandro del Piero (Delhi) is arguably the brightest star on show. The supporting cast includes Robert Pires (Goa), Fredrik Ljungberg (Mumbai), David Trezeguet (Pune), Luis Garcia (Kolkata), David James (Kerala), Joan Capdevila (Northeast) and Elano (Chennai).
Critics argue that the marquee players are all past their sell-by date and they are here just for that final big fat pay cheque. But there can be no arguments about the fact that it will be a golden opportunity for Indian players to learn the tricks of the trade from the fading stars.
Not just players, the ISL has managed to rope in some fine coaches such as Brazilian legend Zico (Goa) and Englishman Peter Reid (Mumbai). Interestingly, Italian Marco Materazzi (Chennai) and English goalkeeper David James (Kerala) will star in double roles — play as well as manage their respective teams.
In the end, everything will boil down to the quality on the pitch. Will an Arsenal fan, fed on a regular diet of sumptuous football, be able to stomach the fare dished out by Goa FC? Will the sight of former Gunner Pires be enough to catch his/her fancy, week in, week out?
Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle believes that Indian fans should wholeheartedly back the ISL even if the quality is not top-notch. “The key to attract the fan lies in the creation of localised competition and support,” he wrote on starsports.com. “In many countries in the world, fans throng stadiums to express support for a club even when aware that they are nowhere near the best in the world. They come to watch for a different reason. South Africa is a good example where they struggle to make an impression even in the African Cup of Nations but have a decently supported local league. The Kaiser Chiefs are big without being a Real Madrid. That is what I hope the Indian Super League will achieve.”
However, football columnist John Duerden thinks that the endeavour could prove to be counterproductive. “The new league promises to be a rising football tide that will lift all boats,” he wrote on soccernet.com. “More money trickling down to improve the generally poor stadiums and facilities sounds good, but there are no guarantees with clubs already complaining that they haven’t seen much of the $140 million that the AIFF received from IMG-Reliance in 2010. They can be forgiven for wondering what would happen if all the time, effort and money being spent on this new venture was actually invested directly in the existing I-League. Teaching clubs how to improve their marketing efforts, which range from erratic to non-existent, would be a good start.”
For now, the ISL will be a two-month affair that will culminate with the title match on 20 December. There are no plans to turn it into a full-fledged competitive league, which is what Indian football desperately needs.
But there is a ray of hope. “The one good thing that could come out of what is becoming a messy battle is a debate over how best to safeguard the long-term interests of club football,” wrote Duerden. “There is growing talk of clubs and league leaving the control of the AIFF and trying to stand on their own two feet. It could be the way forward and it is natural for club owners, many of whom have invested serious money, to want more of a say over the league’s future direction.”