After months of hype, the Indian Super League is finally underway. Sunday’s clash between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City – in which Kolkata ran out 3-0 winners – marked the inaugural game of the first-ever Super League season, and with a crowd of 70,000 people turning up for the occasion, an enthusiasm for domestic football has swept across the enormous country in a way that has never been witnessed before.
India, after all, is the footballing epitome of the sleeping giant. With a population of over 1.2 billion people, its potential is frightening, yet football has never come close to matching the levels of popularity that cricket boasts, which remains the country’s favourite sport by a considerable distance. So barren is India’s footballing heritage that the national side’s enduring legacy is refusing to participate in the 1950 World Cup – the only edition of the tournament that they have ever qualified for – due to a ban by Fifa on playing barefoot – a story which is itself largely grounded in fiction.
The Blue Tigers are currently 158th in the world rankings having recently lost to Palestine, a result which led to the resignation of head coach Wim Koevermans. Such a lowly position in the rankings for a country of India’s size merely highlights the chronic lack of interest in the game, and it may be some years yet before they have a realistic chance of qualifying for the World Cup. However, its organisers are confident that the Super League will prove to be the catalyst for football to explode in India, and the early signs are admittedly promising.
The very format of the league has been specifically designed to maximise the chances of the sport’s growth. Adopting the American MLS model, there is no relegation or promotion systems, as eight teams – or franchises – compete for the top four spots, which qualify them for the playoff-style finals series in November and December. Each team is obliged to sign at least one ‘marquee’ player along with seven other foreign players (five of whom must be chosen through a draft system), while the teams must also have fourteen Indian domestic players on their books, with at least four being local to the city.
This balance between ensuring that there is an annual contigent of crowd-drawing stars in the league and committing to the development of Indian footballers is a sensible approach by the league, and the list of household names it has managed to attract for its debut season is certainly impressive. World Cup winners David Trezeguet, Alessandro del Piero and Joan Capdevilla have been chosen as the marquee players of Pune City, Delhi Dynamos and NorthEast United respectively, while Marco Materazzi – who lifted the World Cup with Italy in 2006 – is the head coach of Chennaiyin FC. Other notable managers in the league include Brazilian legend Zico, former England goalkeeper David James and Peter Reid, while Luis Garcia, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka and Freddie Ljungberg are just some of the other decorated footballers who have decided to play their part in this exciting new chapter in Indian football.
The bidding process for each franchise began earlier in the year, and the occupations of their new owners suggests that a desire to see football grow in India has gained popularity in two of the country’s biggest domains of entertainment – cricket and Bollywood. Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar owns the Kerala Blasters franchise, Sourav Ganguly entered a partnership with Spanish side Atletico Madrid to purchase Atletico de Kolkata, while Bollywood stars John Abraham, Ranbir Kapoor and Salman Khan were also successful in their bids for franchises. Such interest in the game from India’s most famous faces – idolised by millions across the country – is crucial if football really is to come to life.
In all likelihood, football will never overtake cricket as India’s preferred sporting pasttime. Nevertheless, the early enthusiasm for the fledgling Indian Super League is encouraging – with star faces, famous backers and a commitment to nurturing domestic talent, it has the potential to kick-start a golden age of football in India.