The much-anticipated Hero Indian Super League kicks-off tomorrow (Sunday) with the 8 team, 10 week tournament seeing Atlético de Kolkata host Mumbai City FC at the beginning of an exciting new chapter for sport on the sub-continent.
Atlético de Kolkata, co-owned by La Liga champions Atlético Madrid and cricketing super-star Sourav Ganguly, must seek to unite a city usually divided by the East Bengal v Mohun Bagan “Kolkata derby.”
The team have spent a month training together in Spain where they were the guests of their parent club. The club’s players, including former Liverpool forward Luis Garcia, were introduced to the Vicente Calderón crowd at half-time during the Madrid club’s La Liga fixture against Celta Vigo. If Diego Simeone’s much fêted work ethic has rubbed off on Atlético de Kolkata, they will certainly prove hard to beat.
Former Manchester City and Sunderland manager Peter Reid will be in the dug-out for the visitors on Sunday and will most likely be without former Arsenal stars Freddie Ljungberg (injured) and Nicolas Anelka who is still serving a suspension following the ‘Quenelle’ gesture which saw him dismissed for gross-misconduct by West Bromwich Albion.
Reid is no stranger to football in Asia having previously managed the Thailand national side and it is the experience of international coaches, also including Brazilian legend Zico, that organisers hope will benefit Indian football in the long-term.
On a continent where TV allows the best foreign games to be beamed in live by satellite, Indian football fans have a growing appreciation for the game and are already familiar with big name players including David James (player coach of Kerala Blasters), World Cup winners Robert Pirès, David Trezeguet, Joan Capdevila and Allessandro Del Piero.
Barclays Premier League clubs including Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal have long enjoyed strong support in India, and the new franchise clubs must initially encourage their own support base.
India will play host to the 2017 Under-17 World Cup and 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 participation and youth development with the ultimate goal of achieving qualification for the 2026 World Cup.
Only time will tell if the Indian Super League can put football on the map and whether playing standards improve as a result.
Backers of the league have speculated on growth and India becoming football’s next emerging market.