Get set, goal

Nita Ambani, Founding Chairperson, Football Sports Development (promoter body of ISL) is flanked by club owners in a show of strength for the Hero Indian Super League.-Nita Ambani, Founding Chairperson, Football Sports Development (promoter body of ISL) is flanked by club owners in a show of strength for the Hero Indian Super League.

The formation of the Indian Super League — promoted by the country’s biggest industrial house and backed by celebrity ownership — is hoping to grab the attention of India’s urban elite, which has been long hooked to quality football offerings on satellite television from the English and European Leagues, writes Ayon Sengupta.

It is not well known that M. K. Gandhi, the undisputed leader of India’s freedom struggle and the greatest proponent of non-violent resistance, had established three football clubs in South Africa during his fight against the apartheid regime there. The clubs based in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg were called the Passive Resisters Soccer Club and, though, there is no evidence of the Mahatma nutmegging an opponent in the field of play, there are pictures of him with the players at Durban’s Old Court House Museum.

“The Resisters were not integrated into any kind of league structure. At first, Gandhiji appears to have been simply seduced by the essence of the sport itself. It was only later that he realised that it could also be useful for his political ends,” Rebecca Naidoo, great granddaughter of Gandhiji’s long-time associate G. R. Naidoo, told FIFA World in 2010.

The game indeed was used to drum up support for the nascent independence struggle in India following a Kolkata club’s success — stacked with barefooted ball wizards — over British institutions and regimental sides in 1911. However, sadly for football (but blessedly for India), politics and the fight for freedom occupied most of Gandhiji’s time following his return to India in 1914.

The sport though continued to enjoy popular public support, especially in the three regions of Kolkata, Kerala and Goa, but failed to break out of its amateurish shackles, as leaders or administrators showed no professional fortitude to provide any planned direction for its growth.

The country, once Asian champion, is now languishing at the 158th spot in the latest FIFA rankings and the unevenly represented premier domestic tournament, the I-League, — the 13-team 2013-14 edition had eight representatives from Kolkata and Goa — has always remained afflicted with sponsorship and viewership woes.

But now the formation of eight new franchisee clubs and a three-month-long league called the Indian Super League — promoted by the country’s biggest industrial house and backed by celebrity ownership — is hoping to grab the attention of India’s urban elite, which has been long hooked to quality football offerings on satellite television from the English and European leagues. “There are a lot of metrics which demonstrate India’s love for football, especially among the younger generation. As a result, we think if we are able to provide Indian fans with an exciting, engaging and entertaining product, football will be successful,” says Jefferson Slack, IMG’s global business development head for football.

The ISL, which has already been postponed once and faced many hurdles initially — which is perhaps endemic for any new venture in a country plagued by bureaucratic red tapeism — will run from October 12 to December 20, and the organisers have exceeded expectations in assembling a power-packed star cast. Players like Alessandro del Piero, David Trezeguet, Elano Blumer, Robert Pires and Marco Materazzi, though past their prime, have enough footballing pedigree to entertain audiences and also teach Indian novices the true meaning of professionalism.

“I am very excited. Being an Indian international myself, playing alongside several international stars is going to be a wonderful experience. Imagine playing against someone like del Piero! And it’s not just about playing with them, but also about learning and taking something from them,” Indian forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, who will turn up for Chennaiyin FC, says.

The advent of the J-League in 1993 in the land of the rising sun changed the football landscape of Japan and now the island nation is an Asian powerhouse and has been a regular entrant in the quadrennial FIFA World Cup. Football has emerged as the most popular sport there, pushing baseball behind, which always, much like our cricket, has had a fanatical following in Japan. Brazilian legend Zico, who was part of the early soccer revolution in Japan, is now in India, doing his bit for the ISL as the marquee manager of the Goa franchisee. “The game has to go through a process before it becomes successful. There is space for every sport in all parts of the world. Baseball was big in Japan while I was playing in the J-League. Football has grown there,” Zico told Sportstar. “Like Japan, India is a very big country. There can be many people playing cricket, and many people following football as well.”

Even before the start of the on-field action, the ISL has changed the global football world’s opinion about the sport in India. Gaurav Modwell, CEO of FC Pune City, says: “The attitudes of the foreign players and their representatives have dramatically changed over the last few months. Three months back, when we started assembling our team, nobody entertained us as no one knew about football in India. But these days even top international players and their families are keen to meet us, hear us out. Things can only get better.”

But perhaps the most lasting impression of the League should come from its expanded scouting mission, which can unearth exciting new talent that will help India to bridge the long divide between its actual footballing capability and its present sorry reality.

Greatness is about making every chapter better than the last, as a recent advert states, and the ISL’s success will only depend on the quality of the future players it can produce.