The third Indian Super League season kicks off on Saturday with organisers intent on turning it into a global brand -- and shrugging off comparisons with big-spending China.
Former Atletico Madrid star Diego Forlan, Brazilian World Cup-winner Lucio and Champions League winner John Arne Riise are some of the stars of yesteryear turning out in the eight-team, 11-week-long football tournament.
While India is yet to attract top players at the height of their powers, unlike the deep-pocketed Chinese Super League, Indian officials say it is unfair to compare the vastly different Asian giants.
“In China and India the situation cannot be the same because in China the might of the government is fully behind,” Praful Patel, president of the All India Football Federation, told AFP.
Chinese Super League clubs have spent just over 400 million euros ($447 million) on players this year, luring players like 26-year-old Liverpool target Alex Teixeira and Italy forward Graziano Pelle, 31.
But Patel said India was in a different position to China, where a push to raise football standards comes from none other than President Xi Jinping.
“I compliment (China) but given all the considerations, Indian football is going in the right direction,” Patel said.
Brazilian legend Zico returns as FC Goa’s manager for a third consecutive season, while Italian World Cup winner Gianluca Zambrotta will coach Delhi Dynamos and Englishman Steve Coppell is managing Kerala Blasters.
Riise will line up for defending champions Chennaiyin FC, coached by Marco Materazzi, while Lucio is set to captain Goa. Florent Malouda, a Premier League winner with Chelsea, will play for Delhi.
Forlan, who finished joint top-scorer at the 2010 World Cup, is preparing to lead Mumbai City FC’s attack. The Uruguayan, who also played for Japan’s Cerezo Osaka, believes the ISL has the potential to be as big as the J-League.
“It can be, for sure,” the 37-year-old told AFP.
“India is a very populous country. If they keep doing what they’re doing with marketing, stadiums, teams, bringing in good players then I think in the future it could become very popular like it is all over the world.”
Mumbai, who have never reached the semis, are favourites to win their first title due to their formidable front line of former Manchester United forward Forlan and India’s all-time top goal-scorer Sunil Chhetri.
Goa are looking to go one better after a heart-breaking defeat in last year’s final, which ended in a mass brawl. The coastal team were docked 15 points for the start of this season but it was overturned on appeal.
The ISL, a franchise-based tournament whose club owners are largely Bollywood film stars and cricketers, is one of two domestic leagues in India but administrators say a merger is under discussion.
“We would like to see a smooth transition between the two leagues. We hope a timeframe of maybe 2017-18 or 2018-19 season so maybe a year or two,” Patel, whose AIFF oversees the I-League, told AFP.
While cricket-mad India’s domestic football set-up is flourishing, including impressive attendances at ISL games, its national team continues to lurk in the doldrums.
India lie 148th in the FIFA rankings, just ahead of Afghanistan and Lesotho, and reached a nadir last year when the tiny Pacific island of Guam beat them 2-1 in a 2018 World Cup qualifier.
The country of some 1.3 billion people is due to host the under-17 World Cup next year, however, and FIFA president Gianni Infantino believes India is finally awakening from its slumber after years of promise.
“India has always been mentioned as the ‘sleeping giant’. But I’m sure that India is now the ‘passionate giant’ of football,” Infantino told a delighted audience of Indian delegates in Goa on Tuesday.
“Football is developing in India and the passion is growing year after year. Results won’t be immediate but it will follow in coming years.”
Saturday’s ISL opener sees NorthEast United take on Kerala in Guwahati.