In a culture where cricket has traditionally held the highest position on the pantheon of Indian sports, it is a brave man who attempts to draw attention from the national team in the middle of an One Day International series against the West Indies. However, if the inaugural match of the Indian Super League which pits Atletico de Kolkata against Mumbai City FC on October 12 is successful, this may herald the beginning of a change resulting in a seismic shift in India’s sporting hierarchy.
Football may be the fastest growing sport in the country, but it is an interest in the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga as opposed to domestic football which is sparking the interest of India’s population of 1.25 billion. When cricket has occupied such a dominant role in the national psyche since the mid-1800s, can India’s new football league ensure that domestic football can garner enough interest to compete with cricket’s hegemonic status? In a bizarre twist, Sachin Tendulkar, God of Cricket, certainly seems to think so.
Even in its inaugural season the Indian Super League has attracted serious investment. The three teams from the Northern border, three from the Western coast and two from the Southern tip of the country make up this year’s competitors. Together Atlético de Kolkata, Chennaiyin FC, Delhi Dynamos FC, FC Goa, FC Pune City, Kerala Blasters FC, Mumbai City FC and Northeast United FC are worth approximately $200 million.
Backed by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani , Rupert Murdoch and IMG, estimates suggest that with plans underway to add more franchises to the League could be valued at more than $1 billion.
As important as the monetary value, however, is the glitz and glamour which seems to be gravitating towards the new opportunities that the new football league is producing. Cricket star Sachin Tendulkar, co-owner of the Kerela Blasters is joined by his former international teammate Sourav Ganguly as partner in the Atlético de Kolkata franchise. Bollywood legend Priyanka Chopra is also involved in the enterprise. Perhaps the stellar personalities revered by cricket supporters all over India will provide a degree of crossover for fans to help make the new venture more accessible in its early years. A more symbiotic relationship may be necessary for the Indian Super League to be a long term success.
The League will be run in a similar way to cricket’s supremely popular Indian Premier League. Eight teams will play one another twice, both home and away, over the course of just under two months. The four semi-finalists will then compete against one another in a week long showdown ending on December 20 to decide an overall winner.
Such a short season may attract players whose fitness cannot withstand the long seasons of the European Leagues. Players like Alessandro del Piero, David James, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Michael Chopra and Nicolas Anelka who have dropped out of major European competition of late may be taking the headlines by joining the ranks of the league teams. Nonetheless, a fundamental ethos of Indian football is the fostering of home-grown talent.
Although teams can directly contact two international players and choose five foreign players from the draft (picked last month), a minimum of fourteen of the players in a team of at least twenty-two must be Indian nationals. In addition, four of those players must be local.
According to Sepp Blatter, India may be the “sleeping giants” of international football but with an international ranking of 158th, it is footballing infrastructure which is holding back India’s chances of success. Increasing investment in national youth programmes are vital to the success of the entire venture.
Praful Patel, the president of the All India Football Federation described Indian teams as like “school teams.” With money and coaches improvements will eventually be seen. For the Indian Super League, time is the most important factor in determining whether or not football will come to rival cricket in Indian hearts. Only time will tell whether or not a generation who have grown up watching the high level of skill in the Premier League are willing to maintain support for the Indian Super League venture.