Fruitful co-existence should be the theme

Bollywood actors Hrithik Roshan and Priyanka Chopra during the inauguration ceremonyof the maiden Indian Super League in Kolkata last year. The inclusion of tinseltown stars has given the ISL a lot of glitz and glamour.-PTI

The ISL has outstripped the I-League in terms of popularity, but the real challenge now lies in how the promoters of the sport make both the Leagues work together to ensure the vital growth of Indian football. By Amitabha Das Sharma.

Just when it sought to reach out to a wider world by stepping out of its adolescence, the I-League confronted an enfant terrible in the Indian Super League that seemed to have been fostered by a proclivity for instant fame and fortune for the promoters of Indian football. Introduced almost two decades ago, the National Football League, later christened the I-League, cradled the hopes of a club-centric revolution that would catapult Indian football on the international map.

The high hopes soon dissipated in a crucible of mediocrity as the club system, which the nationalised league was expected to engender, failed to bring about a pan-Indian phenomenon. Frustrated by the let-down and browbeaten by its new sponsor, the national governing body of football — the All India Football Federation — apparently tried to correct the imbalances created through the I-League by impinging the ISL on an already confused football scenario.

The newly concocted ‘League’ was modelled on the now-famous Indian Premier League and drew its lifeblood from the franchise system made so successful by its cricketing cousin. The ISL, in its first year, contrived to project fanfare and dazzle and won the attention of the world. And corporations, big and small, pooled in their money and manpower to conjure up the splendour that seemed to have deserted Indian football for long.

What the I-League had failed to do for so long, the ISL did in its very opening season — dovetail sport, entertainment and corporatised marketing into a scrumptious mix much like a well-packaged, ready-to-cook noodles pack. Football was no more limited to its pundits and practitioners as the new entity sought to break the barriers, bringing together Bollywood celebrities, cricketing icons, corporate honchos and former international stars of the sport to spice up the recipe. Much like the IPL, the ISL too was about bright lights, loud music, fireworks, fast-food brands and beauties from tinsel town that created a nouveau charm around football and was lapped up by the fun-loving population. The audience was largely neutral and appeared more inclined in soaking up the hype created around the sport than follow the game itself.

The contradiction this phenomenon generated was similar to the cynicism among a big number of fans in Europe, especially England, who have decried the way such unnecessary fanfare was ruining the game. Despite all this the effort was to popularise the sport and the ISL did fulfil this criterion in its first attempt. The opening ceremony drew more than 60,000 fans and the average attendance was around 25,000, which was arguably the highest in Asia and could rival the best Leagues in Europe. The I-League could draw a bigger number only in some derbies in Kolkata and Goa, while recording an average of around 5000 in most of its matches. According to the broadcasters, the first ISL championship was watched by more than 70 million across the world and was a big hit on the digital media where the new generation of spectators love to connect.

Thus, the ISL, despite being frowned upon by puritans and old-timers, had caught the fancy of the modern sports fan, giving its promoter — IMG-Reliance — and the national federation enough reasons to cheer about. The ISL surely had delivered on the professionalism front, something that had been talked about for long, giving both the players and the spectators a lot of positive aspects from the new format.

Mohun Bagan, the latest I-league Champion. The I-League is staid and lacks the crowdpulling power of the ISL.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Somewhere down the line, the I-League was paling into insignificance. It was certain that the I-League initiated a resurgence of club football in the East — specifically in Bengal and Meghalaya — and some parts of the West — especially Maharashtra and Goa — but the rest of the country remained in darkness. The concept of community-supported clubs has failed to pick up in most parts of the country, where a few names like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting and more recently, Shillong Lajong FC, Royal Wahiongdoh FC and Pune FC provide the real instances of a football club.

The ISL’s franchise-based system was much on the lines of the not-so-popular Major League Soccer in the USA. But it was implemented here arguably because it ruled out the intricacies of club formation and had the presence of a successful model in cricket. The first year of ISL has been really exciting as the foreign stars and big money galvanised the interest around a starving sport and opened the sluice-gates of development. The new ‘League’ speaks about infrastructure development, an essential component ignored over decades. The ISL is already forcing a lot of makeovers in the stadiums, while shattering many biases that had held the sport back from developing in tune with the modern philosophies being propagated across the world.

The ISL, by putting into practice what it sought to profess, has come to break the tedium that had grown around the sameness of the old system, especially the I-league. But the real challenge now lies in how the promoters of the sport make both the Leagues work together to ensure the vital growth of Indian football.