James pleasantly surprised

The former England international goalkeeper was always optimistic about the ISL’s success. But, even he didn’t expect full houses at the stadiums across the country and a burgeoning support base for the franchisee teams. The quality of the Indian players too has been an added bonus, David James tells P. K. AJITH KUMAR.

Two months ago, David James landed in India, ahead of the Indian Super League’s (ISL) international players’ draft, fully aware of football’s secondary position in the country, ranked 158th in the world rankings.

The former England international goalkeeper, however, was still optimistic about the tournament’s success. But, even he didn’t expect full houses at the stadiums across the country and a burgeoning support base for the franchisee teams.

Quality display from the Indian players, too, has been a pleasant surprise.

“When I looked at India’s FIFA ranking, I thought the standard of the Indian players might be a problem. But the ISL has already proved that the Indian footballers can compete well with their foreign counterparts,” says James in this interview to Sportstar. “They have been really good and I think India is going to lose some of their players to better Leagues in Europe by the time the ISL is over.”

The 44-year-old is impressed with quite a few of the Indian boys, especially the ones from his team Kerala Blasters. “Players from my team, like C. S. Sabeeth has been really good,” says James, who has played in over 500 games in the English Premier League for clubs like Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City. “Some of the Indian players are going to make European clubs interested. The main goal of the ISL is to improve the standard of Indian football and we are already seeing it happen. And it will get even better once the grass-root programme also gets underway.”

James has enjoyed playing in front of big crowds in India and says: “Normally, it takes time for a team to get a large base of supporters. But look at the way the fans are getting behind every team.”

His Kerala team recently paid a short visit to Malappuram, a district that boasts some of the craziest football fans in the country, and James was impressed with the enthusiasm of the supporters. “I had heard about the region’s love for football,” he says. “And the ground at Manjeri is fantastic; we would like to play a game there.”

The goalie is also impressed with the quality of strikes in the ISL, so far.

“The goals by Borja Fernandez for Kolkata against Mumbai and Pavel Elias for Delhi against Kolkata, were brilliant,” he says. “And though it hurts, I have to admit that the goal Bernand Mendy for Chennai against us, with an overhead kick, was also among the best goals of the ISL. The league has been really entertaining.”

Happy with the performances put in by the foreign nationals, James says: “It is nice to see that the foreign players are performing exceedingly well. It proves that they have not come here just for the money.”

Kerala Blasters, however, lost both its opening games, against NorthEast FC and Chennaiyin FC. “We lost both the matches after fighting hard,” James explains. “But, I am confident about the team’s abilities.”

The former international is also doubling up as the Kerala team’s coach and is “relishing” the challenge. “It is a challenge that I relish,” he says. “I am also fairly pleased with my own effort under the bar; though I would have been happier with a few more clean sheets.”

Still the holder for the maximum number of clean sheets in the Premier League, with 173, James is also coveting for the ISL record. “I would love to have the record for the ISL too,” he smiles. “I will try for that in the remaining games.”

He also holds a World Cup record as the oldest debutant, which he achieved when playing for England against Algeria in 2010. “I was very happy to make my World Cup debut,” he recalls. “But it was disappointing that we performed poorly in that World Cup in South Africa.”