Football in India may finally emerge from cricket’s shadow with the launch of the Hero Indian Super League, an attempt to bring the game to hundreds of millions of fans and ultimately capitalise on the potential for the game’s development in one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
With a young, aspirant population comprising 25% of the world’s under-25s and an economy forecast to be the world’s 3rd largest by 2030; backers of the league know that football on the sub-continent has enormous potential.
The new league’s 8 team franchise format draws inspiration domestically from the success of cricket’s IPL Twenty20 tournament, which brought genuine international stars to Indian stadiums. The inaugural season will kick-off in October
with a regular home and away season before a play-off series determines the ultimate champions in December. Legends of bat and ball, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly (in partnership with La Liga champions Atlético Madrid), along with several Bollywood screen idols have been convinced to lend their star-dust to the league as franchise owners.
News that Alessandro Del Piero was to join the Delhi Dynamos as their “marquee signing” caught the attention of the world’s media and whilst clearly a signal of intent; there has been some concern as to the ageing nature of the league’s foreign signings.
Every attempt at sporting significance must begin somewhere and for Indian football’s development that means David James (player coach of Kerala Blasters), Freddie Ljungberg, Luis Garcia and World Cup winners, Robert Pirès, David Trezeguet, Joan Capdevila and Del Piero must be their trailblazing pioneers. Perhaps most significantly, Brazilian coach Zico, a man credited as being a catalyst for Japanese football’s development in the 1990s, has signed up to manage FC Goa as a further example of the league’s plans for a long-term legacy.
The success of the USA’s MLS, founded as recently as 1993, is a model the ISL aspires to. World footballing icons including David Beckham and Thierry Henry helped awaken a passion for soccer in the States which saw participation levels grow significantly. The USA’s strong showing in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil was further evidence if needed that the world’s game had finally landed stateside and could at least temporarily rival domestic sports for media attention.
Many explanations have been offered for India’s slow adoption of football ranging from diet, body shape and climate, to the theory that the caste system would not easily embrace the sport’s universal aspect of competition and participation. Football was brought to India by the British through trade and military means with the country’s first recorded match taking place in 1854. However, the reality is that public participation in the days of the Raj was not roundly encouraged with early matches on Indian soil taking place between public school old-boys.
Where football was slow to grasp the nation’s imagination, cricket became a genuine source of national pride and passion. Cricket allowed India to compete on a world stage and became an outlet for national expression. Although the East Bengal v Mohun Bagan “Kolkata derby” is contested in an intense atmosphere, often in front of 100,000 plus supporters; the national team has failed to excite in the same manner. Passionate cricketing rivalries with Pakistan and England have a historic context, and footballing contests versus top Asian opponents including South Korea or Japan have seldom come close to stirring the same fervent fanaticism.
Although currently 151st in FIFA’s rankings the new league recognises the need for India to compete on a world stage, and part of its vision is to boost grassroots youth development and achieve qualification for the 2026 World Cup. The new league will consist of strictly controlled rosters, that dictate that alongside at least one marquee player and 7 other foreigners, each squad must also include 14 Indian players, four of whom being local players to the city they play in. For some time Indian players have traveled the world for trials with top clubs with few examples of success, they may now have a domestic platform for development.
On a continent where TV allows the best foreign games to be beamed in live by satellite, Indian football must compete for attention with the best leagues in the world. Barclays Premier League clubs including Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal have long enjoyed strong support. To survive and prosper, the Indian Super League must breed loyalty and avoid becoming a series of exhibitions. Rivalries must develop; passions of supporters must be celebrated.
Whether Football can ever rival India’s passion for cricket remains to be seen, but with the Barclays Premier League signed up as “strategic partners”, football has a real chance to capture the imagination of a nation with a growing appreciation for the game.