Indian Super League – The Road-map for Indian Football?
The recently concluded FIFA World Cup generated an estimated television viewership of 100 million in India – a steep increase from the 62 million figures in 2010. [Source: Times of India]
To put things into perspective the last edition of ICC T20 Cricket World cup could gather 120 million television audiences. The FIFA World Cup figures are even more startling because the timing of the matches –the time difference between Brazil and India meant that most of the matches, including all the knockout games, were held well past normal bedtime for the Indian audience, some even creeping into early morning hours. Cricket is traditionally the most watched sport in India but these figures show that football fever is rapidly catching up.
European club football and international football already generate huge interest. While the same was not always true for the I-League, the country’s premier domestic league, recent figures released by the AIFF show that stadium attendance figures are also steadily on the rise. New clubs like Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong have helped the domestic league reach places that have plenty of football fanaticism. Given this upsurge in interest, the logical next step for improving the state of the game in India should have been injecting more money and newer ideas into the I-league to make it more attractive for players and fans alike. Instead, there is an altogether new league coming up.
The Indian Super League, promoted by the consortium of IMG-Reliance group, is scheduled to start in the month of October later this year. The league, involving eight city based franchisees owned by business conglomerates, has generated a lot of hype among the football faithful in India. The increased involvement of corporates has resulted in significant cash injection. The franchisees have used the cash to lure out of contract veteran foreign superstars who are in the twilight of their careers or have recently retired from the game.
However, playing the devil’s advocate, one is tempted to ask what does this mean for the traditional domestic football in India? What happens to the Airtel I-league now? Is ISL the magic wand that will be a panacea for Indian football? Will it improve the key fundamental aspects like stadiums, training facilities and football academies? Will it help in spreading football further into corners of the nation untouched by the game? And most importantly, can it increase public interest and enthusiasm in football? Let’s try to analyse some of the key aspects in order to find these answers.
Corporate ownership and sponsorships
For many years, fans and pundits have rued the lack of sponsorship and money as a major stumbling block in the development of Indian football. ISL effectively addresses the problem. It successfully marries corporate consortiums with sports franchisees. The model of corporate ownership has been proven to be extremely successful across Europe. Including corporates not only means financial might, it also means the clubs will be run with an eye on profit to maintain long term sustainability. To further increase financial stability ISL recently inked a three year deal with two wheelers manufacturer, Hero Motocorp, as part of which Hero will become the title sponsors of the league. The league has also tied up with Star Sports for the broadcast of the tournament, which will guarantee wide television coverage.
Foreign players and International Tie Ups
One of the most significant facets of the Indian Super League is the partnership of the franchisees with elite European clubs. A host of ISL franchisees have already announced strategic partnerships with European clubs. Atletico de Kolkata, on account of being owned by them, have a strategic tie up with reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid. FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have entered into alliances with ACL Fiorentina of Italy and FC Feyenoord of The Netherlands respectively. Tie ups between clubs from different leagues opens up an array of interesting avenues for both parties. The European clubs can use their partners as feeders for young talent and send their reserve players on loan for more game time – rumours are doing rounds that a couple of academy players of FC Feyenoord, which has produced players like Robin Van Persie, could be on their way to the Delhi based franchisee. The European clubs can also provide their Indian counterparts technical support in the form of world class coaches, physios and fitness trainers. . This will potentially benefit a lot of domestic players who will be part of the franchisees.
The other significant aspect of the ISL is the concept of marquee players. Atletico de Kolkata, the Kolkata based franchisee, were the first movers when they announced the signing of former Liverpool and Spain winger Luis Garcia. Since then it’s been a trend followed by every club. The Pune based franchisee has signed Juventus and France legend David Trezeguet. The other players rumoured to join different clubs as marquee players include superstars like Alessandro Del Piero of Juventus and Italian vintage. Signing retired foreign players who have played for clubs of international repute as marquee players has given the fans a lot to be excited about. The massive following of European leagues/clubs in India means signing players who played formerly for these clubs will vastly improve stadium attendance as well as Television viewership.
While signing foreign players of international repute may get the fans excited about the prospect of watching them play live, it does little for development of domestic football players. Development of young players is a must to improve as a footballing nation. There has been no official confirmation yet from the organizers over the youth policy. This clearly is an area of improvement for the league. While they can to draw on glamorous international names piggyback on the popularity of football in the franchisee cities to generate fan following, and in turn money, but in order to make a significant impact ultimately there needs to focus on developing young players.
One way to do it would be provide opportunities to youngsters from academies like TFA and other existing football academies promoted by international clubs like Liverpool FC and Boca Juniors to train with the franchisees. This would provide them access to the world class players and coaches who would be part of the franchisees, and let them draw from their experiences and knowhow. TFA has already been instrumental in developing players like Surkumar singh, Deepak Mondal, Rennedy singh who have all gone on to wear the national colours. The best players of these academies can also be included in the ISL draft.
Dual leagues in India
The biggest question on the mind of enthusiasts is “what happens to the Airtel I-league now?” This is a logical and obvious question to ask. Figures released by the AIFF shows that the stadium viewership for I-league clubs have been rising steadily. But will the introduction of a glamorous league with celebrity players dampen the glow of India’s premier football league? It’s too soon to predict. Clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Shillong Lajong and Bengaluru FC have an extremely loyal supporter base. Furthermore, the schedules of both the leagues do not coincide. So, the Hero ISL is unlikely to eat into the viewership of the I-league. However, neither will it help boost interest.
Then there are other potential conflicts that need to be worked around. Owing to the domestic draft pool, there are players who are playing in both the I-league and ISL. In the unfortunate event of a player picking up an injury, which party will responsible for the medical expenses – the franchisee, ISL, AIFF? This remains a grey area till date.
Another problem with the dual league is that Indian players will have to play in multiple teams and various tournaments. The Federation Cup, CFL, and AFC Cup in addition to the National team duties, create a lot of strain on the players. There are two primary issues – First, chances of injury while playing in multiple leagues is pretty high. Second, different teams play under different systems and different philosophies – How to integrate them? One way to achieve this is to incorporate a similar playing philosophy and style throughout the country regardless of the league, club, and competition (similar approach has been applied by Germany and Spain with spectacular results). However this will require a lot of long term planning and must be done top down. The ISL Franchisees or I-League clubs can’t be expected take the lead here.
This is where the real dilemma is. Should there really be two leagues in a country where the state of football affairs is already pretty shabby? Shouldn’t there be a single league where all the money, focus, sponsorships and other resources can be funnelled so that the stadium attendance and TV viewership be consolidated? These are fundamental questions for which there is currently no clear answer. One has to wait and see how the situation emerges.
The ISL has started with a lot of fandom and a lot is expected from the league. This is the first significant development in Indian football in decades rather than years. The model of the league is similar to that of the MLS in the states where it has proven to be instrumental in generating greater interest in domestic football. The same can be expected from ISL if all goes well. The arrival of ISL has caught the attention of even the FIFA president Sepp Blatter . “… in September I can inform you that we will have a professional soccer league in India,” Blatter said in an interview in the magazine SportBusiness International.However, in order for the ISL to make a more substantial and sustained impact on the state of affairs of football in the country it will have to act on its commitment on things that actually matter. Including youth policy as a key component of the league should be a good start. In long term, the league should also benefit from merging the I-league with it and include more franchisees to increase the duration of the league. There are just months before the inaugural edition of the league starts and we will have answers to a lot of questions by then. But nonetheless, these are exciting times for football fanatics in the country.