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ISL: Baby step with promise of making bigger strides

It's early days yet but two games into the Indian Super League (ISL), it can be said that the start's been good, especially where attendance in stadiums and TV viewership is concerned.

sports Updated: Oct 14, 2014 01:50 IST
Dhiman Sarkar

Barring the Kolkata derby and I-League champions Bengaluru FC's games last term, attendances in Indian club football mirrors what the great Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn once said - "if people don't want to come, you can't stop them." It's early days yet but two games into the Indian Super League (ISL), it can be said that the start's been good.

The ISL began on a Sunday night that didn't have European club football and, of course given that the broadcasters for both are the same, no cricket involving the India team. If matches happen on schedule, there is no possibility of a clash with cricket but next weekend will Indian Gooners forego Arsenal playing Hull City for Mumbai City FC-FC Pune City, or Liverpool fans skip the game against QPR and travel to the Salt Lake Stadium to watch Atletico de Kolkata host Delhi Dynamos?

Ignacio Aguillo, a board member with Atletico Madrid, said on Monday that European club football would complement the ISL, not be in conflict with it. "The on-site experience is significantly different from what you see on TV. It is a bit like a company producing a miniature version of a popular product. A football fan is not someone who just watches games involving his or her team on TV. If the product is of good quality and the environment at the stadium is good, fans will come in the ISL."

Getting fans engaged is Indian football's big challenge. If the ISL helps stakeholders understand that the football can comprise an afternoon or evening's entertainment for the family, it will be a huge plus. For that to happen, toilets must be clean, ramps and stairways lit, refreshments available, the seating comfortable and security not a worry.

In comfort zone

It is something clubs in Europe understood over 20 years ago. Indian stadia would usually rank among the least comfortable in the world but Sunday showed that the ISL organisers have understood that this needs to change. The result: a Salt Lake Stadium where watching football was never this comfortable. If the ISL leaves a legacy of better stadiums, Indian football will benefit.

Like in the IPL, through superior television coverage, the ISL can also give Indian footballers greater visibility. Few followers of Indian sport would be able to name five national team players now. But with the ISL being also shown in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and different parts of Asia, Durga Boro, Baljeet Sahni, Denzel Franco should get the kind of visibility they never had. There have been more inquires about the extent of Syed Rahim Nabi's ankle injury than when this Mumbai City FC player represented India.

The AIFF general secretary, Kushal Das, described this competition as an adrenaline boost. But adrenaline alone can take you that far and no farther. It is not adrenaline alone that helped India improve in shooting, wrestling, boxing, badminton and tennis, to say nothing about cricket.

Well begun, therefore, is not half done here. That'll happen if this tournament runs its initial 10-year course without the intensity flagging and with its franchises fulfilling promises of sustained grassroots development.

For a country so lacking everything in football, that is the minimum required to get out of the slump since winning a bronze medal in the 1970 Asian Games, a significant baby step though has been taken.