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ISL to ignite football fire

ISL to ignite  football fire
Indian Super League  starting today will bring life to the most popular game of the world, many hope...
 
The Indian Super League starts today (on Sunday) with typical Indian largesse, flinging together the social and celebrity elites and attempting to tap into the passion for the beautiful game in pockets across the nation. The states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Goa and Kerala have had various versions of semi-professional football for decades, and everything that came with them: passion, partisanship, rowdy fans, the occasional lathi charge. But until this brainchild of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the sponsors the Reliance Group, the current I-League format remains a disparate collection of mini-leagues.

And yet still, young boys zipping about on patches of dry grass and industrial estates try to imitate their heroes – Messi, Rooney, Neymar and Ronaldo – plugging away at this second-tier sport in a country enslaved by cricket’s heavenly bails. There is a historic precedent; in the 1950s and 60s India came fourth at the 1956 Olympics and won two Asian Games gold medals. But since then domestic football has stagnated, stuck with several problems such as how to raise its profile and how to translate the enthusiasm for watching football into something practical.

So where does the ISL fit in? The idea, similar to the North American Soccer League and MLS in the 70s and 90s, Japan’s J-League in the 90s and Australia’s A-League in the 00s, is to get mature international players to pass on their skills, experience and attitude to a domestic pool of talent that is ready to take the next leap through a spritzed-up, eight-team national league.

The clubs’ ‘marquee signings’ read like a who’s who of football, but from a decade ago; players include Robert Pires (FC Goa), Fredrik Ljungberg (Mumbai City FC), Luis García (Atlético de Kolkata), David Trezeguet (FC Pune City) and Nicholas Anelka (Mumbai). Managers include Zico (Goa ), Marco Materazzi (Chennaiyin FC) and Peter Reid (Mumbai). Yes, Peter Reid.

English manager of Mumbai City FC, Peter Reid watches French football striker Nicolas Anelka during a training session of Mumbai City Football Club. English manager of Mumbai City FC, Peter Reid watches French football striker Nicolas Anelka during a training session of Mumbai City Football Club.
Speaking to the Guardian from Mumbai, Ljungberg says: ‘There’s great excitement here, it reminds me a little of when I went to America - Seattle didn’t exist as a club before I went so we tried to tap into the passion for the game in the north-west and they can get 40,000–50,000 per game now.

‘That was a fascinating part of my career, which is why I’m also here in India, there are so many young players and such an opportunity to be part of the beginnings of something great.’

And certainly the prospects are there for taking the game seriously, after a long period of indifference. As Baljit Rihal, a UK football agent and founder of The Asian Football Awards, says: ‘The All India Football Federation has slowly woken up to the massive potential that football holds for India. The Bollywood style launch was a success – they have high-profile co-owners and big names in football. It’s just a question of the tournament running according to plan.’ Of course the creation of a cash-rich, bombastic league in a country whose national team is embroiled in crisis, even facing a funding controversy before the current Asian Games in South Korea, may find sympathy among Premier League fans. But India’s problems stem as much from lack of finance as a dearth of fresh talent. Its most prominent cricketers stare down on mere mortals from gigantic billboards while many Indians would struggle to name their football captain, Sunil Chhetri.

Rihal, who helped broker the former Newcastle and Cardiff striker Michael Chopra’s inclusion in the ISL draft, believes there is scope for European clubs to search for talent in the subcontinent. ‘I would like to see more English Premier League clubs investing in Indian football. The likes of Atlético Madrid, Fiorentina and Feyenoord have already got a piece of the pie – I hope EPL clubs get more involved as it makes commercial sense especially given the huge British Asian diaspora.’

Ljungberg also believes there is plenty of promise, just not enough places to channel it. ‘Here there are not as many pitches and training grounds, so while I’m looking forward to playing for Mumbai City I’m keen to go and train with some kids as well. I feel I have big responsibility here to interact with the people who have made me so welcome.’

Daniel Glynn, of Ad Hoc Films, is the producer and director of Sleeping Giant – a documentary, just released, on the journey two 14-year-old Indian boys, Shaun and Hussain, take after winning a contest in Mumbai to train with QPR for a couple of months – and has seen the culture difference first hand.

He says: ‘Football in India was in a pretty woeful state when our cameras began rolling and by the looks of its continuing poor standing in the Fifa international rankings, it still is. We heard from some pretty heavyweight pundits – AIFF officials, journalists, coaches and business people – all of whom admit to there being something very wrong from the top down in terms of the organisation and the infrastructure that is in place.’

This is hard to deny, the regional leagues are still semi-professional, even among the big teams; training facilities are somewhere between woeful and non-existent and the overwhelming majority of boys who play football do so in bare feet. The story of India leaving the 1950 World Cup in Brazil as they wanted to play without boots is one commonly wheeled out, though it is disputed whether this was the principal reason or a coincidence. But as someone who personally had his namby-pamby western-raised feet cut to ribbons so as not to look soft to the street boys in his grandfather’s village, I can also attest to the fact they play with a very heavy leather ball. Yet still the passion burns fierce, boots or not.

So the razzmatazz of a new league leaves some ambivalent and it is easy to be sniffy as a football fan in a country where the game is so established, but the hope is there will be money pumped into the game, more training facilities and a raising of ambition and awareness. There also comes that word universally loathed: the franchise. But then is Kerala Blasters any more eccentric a name than the Chennai Super Kings of the IPL?

Will the minority of lairy yet loyal fans, 100,000 of whom can fill the cavernous Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata when the two giants of that city, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, play, suddenly feel any affinity to the shiny new Atlético de Kolkata? Will boys suddenly swap googlies and doosras for rabonas and panenkas?

Arunava Chaudhuri, CEO of Mumbai City FC, says people should not get too hung up on the idea of franchises or the glitz. ‘We need this big launch as we need to energise the people who already like the sport. Sure we have big names and Bollywood stars and cricket legends to begin with but the real effect is going to be seen in three to five years’ time at the grassroots level.
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