Last weekend, the second most populous country on the globe was introduced to big time football as the much heralded Indian Super League finally kicked off. In the inaugural game, Atletico de Kolkata, featuring former Liverpool and Barcelona player Luis Garcia defeated Mumbai City 3-0. Quite why the home team adopted a Spanish nom de guerre isn’t quite clear, but if PR and razzamatazz are the necessary ingredients for a successful launch, the teams’ names will matter little.
The game in the sub-continent has always been a very poor relation to India’s national sport of cricket. Organisers of the tournament are hoping however, that a format unashamedly copied from the IPL, and augmented with a number of aging top-line international players from across the globe, plus a smattering of lesser heralded names will encourage the development of indigenous talent in the country to boost interest in the world’s premier sport. The ’Divine Ponytail’ himself, Alessandro Del Piero – although now shorn of his equine appendage and a few pounds heavier following a period in Australia’s A League – is probably the stand out name of the mercenaries imported to give added kudos to the tournament. Other Italian World Cup winners Marco Materazzi and David Trezeguet are also involved, and names such as Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, will also be known to fans of the game in India.
It’s also hoped that, should the initial ten week season prove to be a success, further world class stars can be induced to join. Former Manchester City and Chelsea defender Terry Phelan is a well-known pundit in the game in India, following an 18 month spell heading up the SESA Football Academy in Goa. Interviewed by SkySports, he said “I believe and hope the Indian Super League can capture the imagination. The likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires heading out here can only help with that. The foreigners are so important to kick-start and generate that initial interest. If the first ISL edition is a success you will see top players follow in the future. He continued that, “Someone like Frank Lampard going over there for three months would have been fantastic. When big names like that start heading over, is when you could be talking about it as potentially a big league.”
Phelan is however aware that elbowing room into the country’s sporting psyche will be no easy task, but believes it can be achieved. “I think cricket and football can co-exist in India,” the 47-year-old suggested. “Look at what is happening in America at the moment – soccer is growing over there with big crowds coming in. I think if the Indian Super League can take a little bit from each country and build its own philosophy then it has got a great chance of being successful. There’s money being thrown at the league, academies opening up, and it’s a good start at improving India’s football infrastructure. Plenty of people in India wear Messi and Ronaldo shirts, but it would be great to see kids running round the streets wearing the names of an Indian player on their back just like they do with the cricket.” And there’s the rub.
The opening game was played after a glittering opening ceremony involving legendary cricketers including Sachin Tendulkar, but if the game is to truly take root in India, it will need Indian players to come through and feature prominently. Phelan referred to the growing popularity in America, and it’s true that now there’s a bridgehead for the game in the USA, but this is very much related to the number of home-grown players now competing in the MSL. When the game was first imported there, with the likes of Pele, Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbaur taking part, once the glitz and glamour faded, so did the interest as there were no American players to identify with. And this is what the ISL organisers fear. Riding on the back of cricket, can only have a limited lifespan.
The first couple of seasons must be recognised as ‘pump-primers’ setting the scene for a new generation of Indian youngsters who would take to football rather than cricket. “Sunday’s match proved – if at all it was warranted – that world football’s ageing A-listers and beleaguered B-listers are still better than their Indian counterparts who are at the peak of their careers,” reported The Indian Express. The Times of India though, is more encouraging. “Nobody is fooled into believing change will happen overnight,” they reported. “The unmatched focus on youth development from each franchise also means, beyond the glitz and glamour, there is enough even if you scratch the surface.” If that view prevails, football may be on the threshold of adding more than few more supporters to its cause.