The domestic player draft can be considered as the first on-the-pitch materialisation of the Indian Super League. After months of speculation and deliberation, the league has managed to generate some buzz through the draft which included India's top footballers.
The event also provided a glimpse into what the ISL will be like and how stakeholders IMG-Reliance, STAR and AIFF plan to, in their words, 'radically change the way football is projected in India.' Here are 10 takeaways from the two-day event:
1) Realities of the football market: Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Hernan Crespo, Mikael Sylvestre, Luis Garcia, Joan Capdevila, David James... all names who are well known but either retired or nearing the end of their career have been either signed by ISL clubs or are rumoured to be on their way in. IMG vice-president Jefferson Slack completely understands this: "Initially it is important we understand that these are the players we and the clubs will target. We can't get James Rodriguez or Gareth Bale and that is the reality of the football market." You can look at it skeptically — but for starters, these are the players who will come, and that is the only way the ISL can get a push.
2) Let's not compare it to the IPL: The Indian players in the IPL draft were already well known through the Ranji Trophy and international exploits. It's no secret that India's football stars come nowhere close to the popularity of the likes of Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli. Until that happens, ISL teams will ride on their marquee players' marketability. Slack said, "The ISL needs Indian stars and poster boys who will emerge through the league." The IPL was an exciting product based on the nation's preferred sport — the ISL will attempt to entertain and generate interest but it's sustainability is still not guaranteed.
3) The power of promotion - IMG and Star: "IMG has been involved on operational and execution level, but never at ownership," Slack said. The IMG and STAR make a formidable team to promote a league. They've pumped in money, put their image on the line and come up with a radical concept that is seen by purists as unworkable. However, this is what India probably needs — an in-your-face-hard-to-ignore football product. As for the time period, IMG vice president (Football) Andy Knee puts it well: "It is easier for people to sustain interest a two-and-a-half month tournament compared to full season of football."
4) There is money to be spent on football: Rs 24 crores were spent on domestic players. More than that is expected to be spent on the international players draft in late August. Add the coaches and logistics cost and you are talking about every team spending at least Rs 50 crores. Former India captain and AIFF Technical Committee head Bhaichung Bhutia is still unsatisfied: "It should have been 36 or 48 crore," he said. Well, all this means one thing — money is there to spend — and money is only spent when there's a fairly good assurance of it coming back.
5) No team stands out, not at this moment at least: Team Mumbai have gone for the stars and a top coach, Kerala Blasters looks well balanced, North East United are an exciting young team and Atletico de Kolkata have the backing of a big European club, but didn't really create ripples in the draft despite spending the most money. Six foreign players still need to be added to the squads and there is a lot of talent, some still unknown to most onlookers, in the teams. As of now, none of them stand out.
6) Stadium experience more vital than TV viewership: Money from TV will come in — ads will be sold, rights have been bought by STAR and TRPs will at least initially be okay it seems. The real issue though, is getting people into stadiums. "Good pitches, good locker rooms and treating the fans to a good day out — where people can come with families, find something to eat and feel comfortable are our modest goals. TV production will be top class," said Slack. Let's see.
7) Other football tournaments will suffer: The dates of the tournament are still not set. The Champions League T20 and the Asian Games happen in the tentative slot they've decided upon. "Cricket will always be an ongoing thing," Nitin Kukreja, President of STAR India said — but the ISL, apart from competing with other events will also hamper at least some parts of the Durand Cup and national camps. The I-League, which is India's primary football league, will also take a backseat.
8) Foreign stars and their adaptation: "Some players adjust and some don't. I think you will see some players under-perform and struggle with the weather and conditions," Bhutia believes. And it's true. Matches may happen in the evening when it's cooler — but how cold is cold? There was a hue and cry over players playing in 35 degrees Celsius in Brazil — but in India, we consider that to be pleasant playable weather. Facilities, food, language, tactics and speed of play are also other hurdles.
9) What about the players after the tournament: Some of the players have been loaned by I-League clubs to ISL but most of them (45 of 91 in the draft) were free agents snapped up by clubs on two-and-a-half month contracts. What happens after that? "Those who've been loaned go back, the rest are free to sign with other I-League clubs after the tournament ends." But what if a free agent does well in the ISL and signs for a club like Bengaluru FC which hasn't released players for the ISL? Won't he like to come back and earn big bucks in the lucrative tournament next year?
10) Future of Indian football depends on ISL: Currently there is no guarantee of a second season of ISL. The first year is a learning experience — a testing of waters. If it does, then there's nothing like it — it will get better by the years. But if it doesn't, then Indian football's biggest and most daring experiment will perish without a positive result. And with it, a lot of hopes.
Updated Date: Jul 24, 2014 13:23:03 IST