“Dude what time is the match today?” were the first words a friend of mine said during a phone conversation as I made my way to the media tribune during one of the Delhi Dynamos’ Indian Super League (ISL) match last year. “All ISL matches are at 7.00 pm,” I replied. “Not ISL man, who cares about buddha (old) players playing boring football. I am talking about the Man United match,” he further said. “8.30 pm I think,” was my response, before the guy explained how he would make sure to get out of a family “thing” to make it home in time for the match.
I couldn’t blame him, for his choice was a 35-year-old Florent Malouda (former Chelsea player) playing for an uninspiring Delhi team, compared to watching some of the best paid players in world football. But a few days later, he called up and said he went for an ISL match at the Nehru stadium, and how “Isse accha main ghar pe baithke EPL hi dekh leta...it was so boring. (I would have rather sat home and watched an EPL match)”
As someone born in the 90s and went through adolescence during the 2000s, these kinds of conversations were nothing new. The mere excitement of even watching the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ronaldinho, Nemanja Vidic, Messi, Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy (the list is endless) on television was something that gripped myself and my peers early on. Being from a middle-class family and thus having the privilege of TV and internet access meant that if we weren’t watching live football, we were reading about it, watching videos of old players or going through fixture schedules to know if a big derby match was in the middle of exams or not. Everything was just so accessible, from the big promos on the telly to the extensive articles. It was a big show of sorts thousands of miles away and we were mesmerised by the spectacle of it all.
The fact that we could name the entire starting XI of almost all of the big clubs thousands of miles away, but not know who the opening batsmen of the Indian cricket team were, says it all.
I still remember when India beat Syria in the 2009 Nehru Cup final at the Ambedkar stadium in Delhi. An extra time Renedy Signh free-kick in the 114th minute seemed to have sealed the match, sending the sold-out (plus wall climbers) crowd into a frenzy, but an equalizer in the dying seconds took the match to penalties with India coming out on top 5-4. The spectators went crazy, more so than when actor Salman Khan took a lap of the pitch during the break, but even then, despite being proud of my country lifting the trophy, the European football fan in me was thinking: “If it’s like this here, imagine what it’s like at Old Trafford (Manchester United’s home), San Siro (AC and Inter Milan), Santiago Bernabeu (Real Madrid).
Three years later, in 2012, Bayern Munich came to play a friendly with the Indian national team. I rallied up a group of friends and we watched the German giants thrash the Blues 4-0 in what was Baichung Bhutia’s farewell game. After the game we ran into some college friends who didn’t even like football, but “How could we miss Bayern play live?” was the reason. Forget the small matter that it was the final game of one of India’s most iconic footy players.
Today, to be able to watch Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben or Frank Ribery on TV and say “I saw them LIVE” makes me want more. While others wish for holidays to Milan, Barcelona, London, my generation hopes for trips to the football arenas around the world. One such fanatic I know flew all the way to Liverpool to watch Steven Gerrard’s last home game for the Anfield club. It didn’t matter that the team were playing badly, or that the match was meaningless.
Recently the ISL has begun investing a lot of money into capturing the 7pm audience. And to an extent they have succeeded, with the league garnering the fourth highest average attendance in the world, higher than even Italy’s Seria A. But by just the second season, the numbers in the ground, at least in Delhi, were already thinning. It doesn’t help that the league is not even three months long.
It has become a pattern, to watch these big European clubs week after week for nine months. To keep a track on the news, the transfer gossip, the injury list.
“(Alessandro) Del Piero is old now (then 39). He won’t do much” was the common consensus among journalists during the inaugural season of the ISL. This was after all one of Italy’s most iconic players in history, a World Cup winner. He fizzled out of the team, scoring just one goal. This theme is common with most marquee players the league has roped in with younger players like Elano, 33, of Brazil a rare exception.
It seems implausible for fans to be attracted to Indian football, let alone go to the stadiums, until the quality improves. Even the 2015-2016 season of the Hero I-League, meant to be India’s top football league, has just nine teams participating, two less than last year. While it has been mooted that the ISL and the I-League could be merged in the future, what will attract the fans? With the exception of football loving states like Goa and Kolkata, why would the everyday fan watch boring, uninspiring football? The problem seems to not only be with the quality of the game, but the marketing too. There is so little money to be made from the I-League that spending it to attract fans won’t make sense.
The Major League Soccer in the US, a rough format of which the ISL follows, has managed to grow so much in the last few years that they are now able to attract European footballers in their prime. A prime example was when Sebastian Giovinco, still only 29, left the powerhouse that is Juventus in 2015.
Some of the fans I spoke to during the ISL said they were at the stadium because they had nothing better to do. While this is not the case all around, with some Goans saying they didn’t miss an ISL match since the first edition (but could not name an I-League team), the culture, the match day vibes, going around the stadium, chanting the club song with a cold one in hand, that culture is just not there.
Video games like Fifa and PES (Pro Evolution Soccer), that recreate the beautiful game with lifelike graphics and up-to-date team rosters, have added to the popularity of the leagues. They don’t have the Indian leagues, except the national team (who no one ever picks) and that adds to the obliviousness to Indian football. I know of a bunch of people who admit that the games not only made them want to watch the teams’ live matches, but that it is because of them that they are able to identify the good players and want to see them live.
Maybe with time, with a longer season and more exciting football if not bigger names in their prime, could see the tide turn and see India have a culture where stadiums would be packed with fans instead of covering up empty seats with sponsor logos. Until then, I need to memorise the weekend’s matches across Europe.
(The views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @govindankishwar)