Next month, the somewhat weather-beaten state of Indian football could see a churn. The proposals — and the speculations they have generated — are so removed from the reality of the game here that they do seem like an All Fool's Day prank. Or, promises made in poll season. But this time it's for real.
Newspaper advertisements have invited bids to own teams in the Indian Super League (ISL), an inter-city football competition scheduled to start in September as a curtain-raiser to the 2014-15 Indian season. Since this is a competition inspired by the IPL, commerce, cricket and celluloid will possibly forge another relationship through sport.
Buzz is that in the mix of the aspiring owners are two former India cricket captains. Shah Rukh Khan has publicly stated his interest in ISL and a younger star, said to be the next big thing in the Hindi film industry, who is also a Barcelona fan too could be involved. John Abraham has been quoted as saying that if he could, he surely would buy a team.
"I am blown away by both the excitement and passion of many of India's top celebrities for both sports in general and football in particular," said Jefferson Slack, head of Global Football Business Development, IMG Worldwide, in an e-mail. The league is the brainchild of IMG-Reliance who, in December 2010, signed a 15-year deal with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
Also interested are jewellery chains from south India, a company formed by former UTV head Ronnie Screwvala and a businessman known for trademark flamboyance. Screwvala will be one of the bidders and has said the league has the potential to put football in the "mainstream."
HT learnt that over the past two months, representatives from IMG-Reliance have met a number of prospective owners explaining the idea of a franchise football league. As word spread, so did the interest. "We too started getting inquiries from different parts of India," said an IMG-Reliance official.
Among them is a tycoon from Kolkata with interests in the hospitality sector. It is possible that he and Sourav Ganguly could bid for the Kolkata team and if they do, it could lead to another face-off between Dada and the Badshah. This too could split Kolkata down the middle.
Ganguly hasn't denied reports that he is interested in being part of the Kolkata ISL team. Shah Rukh has been quoted as saying they are in talks with IMG-Reliance and that "football is the ideal way to go, considering Kolkata is crazy about it."
Shah Rukh isn't the only IPL team owner showing more than cursory interest. Last August, there were reports of the GMR Group being interested in owning the Delhi team. On Friday, an official from the company that owns Rajasthan Royals said they are interested. It was learnt that an IPL franchise in south India too has picked up bid documents.
Clubs too seem to have shed their initial reluctance about this competition that could alter the way India perceives its football. Having stunned all-comers by heading the I-League of most of the season, newbies Bengaluru FC are learnt to have sent feelers. A spokesman for Bengaluru FC though said the club isn't involved now but didn't rule out the possibility in future.
Two football clubs from western India too may bid. It is also possible that the bid for Goa could see traditional football rivals teaming up. A senior AIFF official associated with an I-League team has been scheduling meetings in Mumbai and New Delhi to attempt a joint bid for a city in eastern India.
Focus on grassroots
Crucial to winning the bid is a detailed grassroots development plan that aims at building a football culture. Between June and September, ISL franchises would target 1 million children across eight cities through an engagement programme. It is specified in the bid document that R2 crore must be spent on grassroots development in the first year. By Year V, all franchises are expected to have their academies.
"We need to create a system which allows young Indians to thrive as football players. If we do that the Indian national team will become more successful. We also have spent a lot of time creating the right governance and economic structure to make sure we follow international best practices. In doing so, we hope to build something that will last a long time," said Slack.