India's new football league ISL making a big splash
The Indian Super League seems to have added the zing that football needed in a country of 1.2 billion people, which Fifa chief Sepp Blatter once called 'a sleeping giant'.sports Updated: Nov 20, 2014 23:14 IST
The spectators are streaming in, the foreign players are sparkling on the pitch and the organisers are striking the right notes.
The Indian Super League seems to have added the zing that football needed in this country of 1.2 billion people, which Fifa chief Sepp Blatter once called "a sleeping giant".
But while the new eight-team league featuring big names like Nicolas Anelka, Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia has lifted the game to a level not seen here before, some football observers wonder whether it will be enough to help grow the sport in the long run.
The league, which began in October and finishes in December, has big money and sponsors behind it - it was organised by IMG-Reliance in collaboration with Rupert Murdoch's Star India group and the All India Football Federation.
And interest among fans has been high through the first half of the tournament, with attendance averaging 22,639 per match, the highest for a football league in Asia and fifth-highest globally after the Bundesliga, English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.
"Indian football has never been packaged so well before," said Sukhvinder Singh, managing director of the football marketing consultancy Libero Sports. "It's reached even people who do not follow football and some 70 million watched it on the first day. I feel it's already the second best sports property here after cricket's Indian Premier League."
Part of the reason for its success has been the use of cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, as well as a handful of Indian film stars, to market the league across the country.
But despite the added glamour, some critics believe Indian football will not benefit greatly if the country's top domestic league, the I-League, is left to rot.
Brazilian great Zico, who helped lead the transformation of domestic football in Japan, said the existence of two separate leagues could be an impediment to the sport's growth.
"In Japan, the difference was that everyone was playing in one league only and not two leagues like in India," said Zico, who is coaching the Goa club in the ISL. "Here, some of the very good players are not playing in ISL."
Top football officials such as Fifa secretary Jerome Valcke and AIFF president Praful Patel insist the I-League remains India's only league and the ISL is merely a tournament.
Narinder K Bhatia, vice president of the Delhi Soccer Association, however, fears that a clash of systems could negatively impact the game in the long run.
"State associations are being sidelined. I fear the football culture will suffer rather than improve as even the present feeder system will collapse," he said. "On the one hand, people are getting to watch the likes of players like Messi on television, and on the other these semi-retired players. Do you think people will become fans of these players? They'll forget our own players and past stars."
Indian football journalist and author Mohammad Aminul Islam also doubts the new league will successfully raise the standard of football in India because it's dominated by foreign stars and in his opinion, the quality of the matches has so far been mediocre.
Brazilian midfielder Elano Blumer is the leading scorer so far with eight goals, while players like Anelka and Del Piero continually dribble past Indian players with ease, despite being past their prime.
"The ISL should have only one or two active marquee players in each team instead of several over-the-hill stars," Islam said. "The ISL should've encouraged locals more than foreigners."
As for the fans, many are happy to shell out Rs 200 (about $3) for the spectacle, even if the level of play isn't so great.
"We're not really backing teams," said student Aryan Singh after watching a game in New Delhi. "It's only a matter of getting a feel of watching a football match live rather than cricket."
First Published: Nov 20, 2014 23:04 IST