We don’t associate India with football. This is largely because the country is so obsessed with cricket and in the days when Britain marched across the world building up its imperialist portfolio you just couldn’t imagine the sons of empire kicking the ball around in the Bombay heat in their finest tweed. Given the ruling classes turned the World map pink, football – the pastime of the proles – was never going to be the priority as a leisure pursuit. The essence of “Britishness” became cricket and there’s no bigger advocate of the sport than India.
But businessmen and football-mad Indians want to raise football from its lowly position in the world game. FIFA’s Sepp Blatter has called India a “sleeping giant”, but it is more accurate to say that it is, at best, moribund. India is ranked 147th by FIFA, ridiculous when you consider it has a population of 1.2 billion.
Just a couple of weeks after the Indian league ended, plans were announced to launch the Indian Super League (everything’s super these days, after all), which does not replace the I-League, but is an additional competition which has traces of cricket’s IPL in its ethos. The Super League is a franchise-driven format, with eight teams being proposed and backed by people like legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and film star Salman Khan as well as corporate names like the Sun Group and DEN Networks.
The teams will be drawn from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Goa, Kolkata, Guwahati, Pune and Kochi. The forthcoming auction has the feel of “Yesterday’s Men”, with the likes of Dwight Yorke, Fredrik Ljungberg (37), Robert Pires (40), Louis Saha (35) and Hernan Crespo (38) set to be put up for sale. And the managers, apparently, include Kenny Dalglish, Peter Schmeichel and Marcel Desailly. It’s set to start in September.
The aim is obviously to create a glitzy product that appeals to young India. But as other leagues have found out, shipping in faded heroes from Europe will not bring instant success. The Super League is undoubtedly a commercial vehicle to make money.
The I-League (in this part of the world, leagues are invariably known by a single letter – A means Australia, J equals Japan and K stands for Korea) feels under threat from this new project. It’s a league where bizarre things can happen. This season’s champions, Bengaluru, were only founded a year ago and bypassed the second division to gain direct entry into the top league.
Bengaluru are based in Bangalore and managed by a Brit, Ashley Westwood, who was formerly player-manager with Kettering and can reasonably be described as a journeyman who has also featured at Stevenage, Crewe, Chester and even Manchester United.
Westwood’s team clinched the title in their debut season on April 21, beating Dempo (twice champions in the past five years) 4-2. While the new club had a spectacular campaign, 2012-13 champions Churchill Brothers struggled to stay in the I-League. Consistent East Bengal finished runners-up and Salagoacar were third.
Domestic football in India, however, struggles to win people over. Indians love English football, a recent survey suggested that more than 95% of football watchers prefer to watch international football rather than the I-League. To emphasise this, more people watch the English Premier in India than in England itself. Average crowds for the I-League are around 4,000 which, for a country as big as India, is almost a no-starter. On TV, Cricket is by far the most popular sport, with (wait for it), wrestling the next most popular pastime!
On the international stage, the Indian national team, which features two of Bengaluru’s team, Robin Singh and leading scorer Sunil Chhetri, didn’t last long in the World Cup 2014 qualifying competition, losing 5-2 over two legs to the United Arab Emirates. They’ve got a long way to go.
How the Indian Super League fares and sits alongside the I-League may well determine the future of football in India. The promoters are hoping that the heady mixture of razamataz, celebrity owners (Atletico Madrid now have an involvement) and big name veterans, combined with intense media coverage, can kick-start an Indian football revolution. It may not be that simple…