Indian Super League: The future of football?
THE MARQUEE MOB
- Atlético de Kolkata (Luis Garcia)
- Chennaiyin FC (Elano)
- Delhi Dynamos (Alessandro Del Piero)
- FC Goa (Robert Pires)
- Kerala Blasters (David James)
- Mumbai City (Freddie Ljungberg)
- NorthEast United (Joan Capdevila)
- Pune City (David Trezeguet)
In part-conscious homage to Australian billionaire Kerry Packer, who had done the same three decades previously, they decided to form their own rebel cricket league. The Indian Cricket League (ICL) had its first season in 2007 and was actively sabotaged by Indian cricket's governing body: the BCCI banned the personnel, players and even the stadia involved in the ICL. They even tried to discourage the sport itself, or rather the version the ICL used: Twenty-20, a new format recently devised in England to revive waning domestic interest.
That was, until September 2007, when a young Indian team, devoid of many of its stars, won the inaugural World T20, only a few months after the full star-studded national team had been humiliated at the actual World Cup. Nothing brings people around like a winning team.
Within six months of India winning the World T20, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was launched. The eight franchises, each of which cost more than $70m, were bought by the likes of Shahrukh "King of Bollywood" Khan, Lachlan "son of Rupert" Murdoch and Mukesh Ambani, at that point the world's fifth-richest person. Cricket was becoming big business, very quickly, and establishing a blueprint for a new kind of sporting domination.
Franchises, hype and Murdoch
The various sports' new leagues are consistent in their organisation – a month or two taken out from the international calendar with live programming every day for the Star network – and format: six to eight city-based franchises without any promotion and relegation, inspired by the structure of American sports, especially the NFL.
The formula is consistent: combine the finances of India’s billionaires, the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, India’s cricket stars and typically Murdochian hype"
And that's how the ISL is designed. There are eight franchises, each of which is backed by a consortium which combines all the factors that have been successful in the other leagues – Atletico de Kolkata, for example, has a consortium which includes Sourav Ganguly (the city's most famous sportsman and a cricketing icon), a pair of millionaire businessmen and Atletico Madrid. The leagues are careful to target areas of existing popularity: the Hockey India League included five teams from the north of the country and just one from Mumbai, with the vast south having no teams. That also explains why the eight teams in the ISL are what they are.
But the centre for Indian football, and this league, will remain Kolkata, which regularly attracts over 100,000 people to the Salt Lake stadium for its biggest game: the derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
And then there’s Guwahati, whose uniquely named North-East United aims to represent the country's eight north-eastern states, which account for less than 4% of the population but are culturally different from the rest of the country, including the passion for football. Seven of the 10 clubs in the I-League (Indian professional football's highest division, which starts again in December after the ISL finishes) are from Goa, West Bengal and the north-east.
Unique country, unique problems
Then there’s the fact that Star is the official broadcaster of the Premier League in South Asia, and has been for the whole of this century. How can you sell the glitz and glamour of something when even your own channels will show football of a far higher quality? And that quality matters – the majority of the players in all these sports leagues are Indian.
In the other sports the talent pool is large enough, and India is close enough to the very top of the game, for that quality to be maintained; in football, India is ranked outside the top 150 by FIFA. For all the viewing figures, it's difficult to tell what benefit the new leagues have been in attracting kids to sports which were already popular: will the ISL have any effect in improving the Indian talent pool?
The marquee players are a Who’s Who of Where Are They Now? They were all world class once, but those days are long gone"
And how will it co-exist with the I-League, which will continue to trundle on as the highest division in the land, operating as football leagues usually do? Formed in 2007 as a restructuring of the National Football League, which was barely a decade old itself, the I-League aimed to capitalise on football's obvious popularity by creating a high-quality competition designed to promote local talent. Even the I-League name was inspired by the success of other Asian competitions in Japan, South Korea and Australia.
But the biggest problem can't be solved by loud adverts. Football fans demanding – and receiving, through the same TV set – top-quality matches in the Champions League and English Premier League are unlikely to fall for below-par action in questionable stadia with a running track separating the bumpy pitch from empty stands. No amount of patriotism can hold the interest long enough for a league to succeed.