The Indian Super League (ISL) has been dubbed the third largest football league in the world. Incredible though it may seem, the western media does believe so. Indian football pundits, on the other hand, are fairly impressed by the interest the league has generated in a short time but are wary about its power to change the country’s footballing fortunes.
When the ISL was launched, and the list of foreign players who would play released, football buffs and media persons alike had labeled it as a ‘Retirement Scheme’ for former footballers. A couple of seasons later followers are now convinced by the progress the league has made.
Most football aficionados in India also feel that the objective of the ISL — that of helping India qualify for the 2026 World Cup — is a little far-fetched. Languishing among the cellar teams for five decades and more, even the task of climbing into the top-50 of the FIFA rankings in ten years — from its present position of No. 137 — seems challenging, if not implausible.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF), which ‘controls’ the game in India, has been indolent and generally bereft of ideas ever since it became functional in 1948. Even in the new millennium, amidst growing protests from football fans, hardly any imaginative work was done. The Santosh Trophy — for the national championships — and other major tournaments hosted by state associations, for clubs, had failed to ignite player passion and had started alienating the game’s patrons too.
With the realisation that football wasn’t going anywhere in India, the National Football League (NFL) was introduced in 1996. The aim was to promote professional clubs, and with it, professionalism among players and officials. The I-League replaced NFL in 2007, necessitated by half-baked ‘shamateurs’ parading as professionals in the older version.
The story goes that Lalit Modi, once prima donna of the Indian Premier League (IPL), had offered the concept of a pro-league to AIFF and presented it to BCCI only after the former had rejected it as a bad idea!
Three years after the I-League was introduced came the game-changer. AIFF signed a 15-year, Rs 700-crore deal with Reliance and International Management Group (IMG), giving them exclusive rights to create a new league, besides the right to sponsorship, broadcasting, merchandising and franchising. Lure of the lucre, rather than the game’s progress had perhaps awakened the comatose AIFF.
IPL versus ISL
The concept of the Indian Super League is based on the Major League Soccer of America, the A-League in Australia and the IPL. IPL had managed to garner a huge fan-following by the time ISL commenced in 2014. Three-hour matches played under floodlights, with live entertainment, celebrity attendance and of course, with the best players in the world parading their skills; IPL had had a brilliant model to work on!
What ISL had to contend with was also the fact that IPL, with its debut season in 2008, had already lured away some of football’s avid followers.
One of the reasons for IPL’s rapid growth into a $4.5 million business in 2015 was that the world’s best hundred-odd players were part of the different franchises. The ISL can’t afford to have either a Messi or a Ronaldo playing in India. The best among the just-over-the-hill lot was therefore its only choice.
Luckily, youngsters in India have been watching football — and following top teams — on TV for many seasons. Most of the former stars who now appear for various teams in the ISL are therefore not new to them and they relate easily to their past performances.
Despite the recent Lodha committee-BCCI imbroglio, cricket’s worst critics will admit that its administration has been efficient, if not as transparent as people would like it to be. AIFF and its state associations, over the years, have been badly administered and sponsors have therefore shied away from the sport. Most state and district level football associations lead a hand-to-mouth existence and the parent body is least bothered about their well-being. Some of them don’t even conduct their annual leagues or tournaments!
Besides competing with cricket for eyeballs, ISL has had to charm young Indians who have grown up watching the fast-paced and technically superior English, European and South American leagues. These youngsters, not long ago, had shunned the Indian game, calling it ‘walking football’.
ISL needs to revitalise Indian football
ISL is trending on social media and has millions of admirers on both Facebook and Twitter. The fan-following is growing by the day, pointing to the fact that the league has established a hold on the discerning Indian youth.
In terms of attendance too, the ISL has shown considerable progress over the previous season. In 2014, the inaugural year, the average attendance at an ISL match was 23,400 (besides being watched by 429 million viewers on Star TV). In 2015, the spectator count grew to 27,090 per match. The on-going 2016 season promises better fare and a much larger following. Things therefore are looking up for ISL.
That said, the IMG-Reliance and Star TV combine has work to do. They have succeeded in getting the whole of India interested in the ISL. They now have to create a system which will help the country produce footballers who are as good as the best in the world.
A few more Nita Ambanis will be required to champion the cause of Indian football, within the country and abroad. Extreme devotion and professional excellence in every sphere will be the prerequisite if India has to get into the top strata of world football. The Indian Super League shall by then shall have to be a full-season event, with at least 14 teams vying for the title.
In the not very distant future, along with the European leagues, India could be a destination for top footballers to look for lucrative contracts and world class football.
It isn’t going to be easy. But implementing the following could probably facilitate the process:
1. A grassroots programme that reaches every school in the country: Easier said than done, this will require good, enthusiastic and devoted coaches who are committed to the cause of getting young boys and girls interested in football. At this level, it isn’t about quality; it’s about quantity. Well organised special camps for the talented and a few junior age-group tournaments to pick talent will also be necessary. Talented youngsters should be given educational free-ships and specialized training in football skills, proper nutrition and the opportunity get stronger.
2. Corporate adoption of football schools under CSR: Schools that produce the best players year after year could be provided special funds from the CSR budgets of local corporates. This will be a huge encouragement for youngsters to take up the game.
3. A training-the-trainers programme: This will create a large number of coaches for training players of different age-groups. The programme should necessarily be designed and implemented by senior coaches and instructors from good footballing countries.
4. A talent-hunting team that will comb through every coaching centre in the country: No talent should go unnoticed. There are hundreds of talented players in India who have had to give up the game because they didn’t see a future in playing football. A break at the right time could make a difference to a player’s career.
5. Provide top class infrastructure in every state: The facilities available at football stadiums, even in Mumbai, the country’s commercial capital, are appalling. The spectator experience has to be excellent and players should enjoy playing the game. Funds need to be provided to these facilities and people in charge need to be made accountable.
6. Finally, state and district associations have to be empowered: Each state association needs to be run by a CEO, who is made answerable for everything that the association does, right from implementing coaching programmes to organising top level events. Elections of office bearers have to be conducted in a fair and impartial manner, keeping political clout out of it.
Bengaluru FC recently got the better of AFC Cup champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim to enter the finals for the first time. In the last few months, India has climbed 10 places in FIFA rankings. Former president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter recently called India the ‘Sleeping Giant’ and the ‘next market’ for football. Positive happenings!
ISL could perhaps create the next football revolution. But there’s work to do. In the meanwhile, let’s cross our fingers and ‘let’s football’!
The author is a former elite division level football manager-coach and ex-president of the Mumbai District Football Association, besides being a cartoonist and cricket coach.
Updated Date: Oct 30, 2016 08:41 AM