Indian Super League – optimism and hope

THE INDIAN Super League (ISL) will begin its eighth season at the end of November 2021 hoping the competition can resume its early momentum. The ISL will take place in Goa in a bio-secure bubble, and is expected to be played behind closed doors. Three venues are expected to be used: the Fatorda Stadium, the GMC Athletic Stadium and the Tilak Maidan.

The ISL is also breaking new ground with the launch of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as digital collectibles. The league has partnered with Terra Virtua to create unique digital collectibles that will represent, to a certain degree, a modern-day equivalent of trading cards. They will feature the league and its 11 member clubs.

This move, which may seem alien to legacy football fans across Europe, demonstrates the ISL’s strategy of being a league of today, embracing technology and new methods of interaction with supporters.  NFTs are a blockchain-enabled technology and are growing in relevance. The ISL’s head of digital, Hoshedar Gundevia, commented: “Digital collectibles have been one of the most talked-about fan engagement avenues in 2021 and as a young league, we would like to keep pace with the demands of India’s millenial and Gen Z audience segments.”

Indian football experts acknowledge that younger generations do not necessarily want to watch games in stadiums, so they consume their football and connect with clubs in many different ways. The use of NFTs and social media are both aimed at getting closer to younger fans. 

Football is the second most popular spectator sport in India after cricket, in both live and broadcasting terms. It is getting stronger all the time, said Vivek Sethia of India on Track at the World Football Summit in Madrid. “In the past our league was weak but the ISL is improving commercially and in the creation of academies,” he added. 

Sethia said Indian football is taking a top-down approach as opposed to the bottom-up stance taken by most countries trying to establish themselves. The ISL started with eight clubs, but now has 11. “I see only growth in the next 10 years,” he insisted. 

Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, attendances had fallen sharply for the ISL. The last campaign with crowds was 2019-20 and gates averaged around 13,000 – less than half the figures for 2015.  They’ve been below 20,000 since 2017-18, which may have something to do with TV coverage and the scheduling of games. Whatever the reason, crowd figures may not be an accurate barometer of the popularity of the game in India and it has to be remembered that there are around 150 million followers across the country.

India offers the potential for international corporate sponsors as well as link-ups with European leagues and clubs, who can market themselves to a potentially huge audience. Spain’s Sevilla and Atlético Madrid have been particularly active in this process. Sevilla have also formed a five-year partnership with I-League club Bengaluru United with will include the creation of shared soccer schools. The club’s president, Jose Castro Carmona said the deal was recognition of the appeal of India as a vibrant football market and the importance of India as part of Sevilla’s international expansion strategy.

India, generally, underachieves in some sports. Their record in the Olympics is poor and they have never played in the FIFA World Cup, despite a population of 1.4 billion of which between 10 and 30% can be classified as middle class. The national football team has already been eliminated from the 2022 World Cup. 

FC Goa, after winning the ISL regular season in 2020, qualified for the 2021 AFC Champions League, the first ISL club to play in the group stage of the competition. They came up against Abu Dhabi’s Al-Wahda, Al-Rayyan of Qatar and Iran’s Persepolis. They failed to win any of their six group games, but drew three.

The Indian Super League champions in 2020-21 were Mumbai City, a club 65%-owned by the City Football Group. Their coach is Sergio Lobera, who joined Mumbai City after a success stint with FC Goa. The club will play in the group stage of the 2022 Champions League.

Mumbai City have strengthened their title-winning squad, signing Brazilian forward Ygor Catatau on loan from Madureira, Australian midfielder Brad Inman and promising Indian defender Naocha Singh, who is seen as one to watch in 2021-22. But the most exciting capture could be Lalengmawia Ralte, or Apuia, as he is known. The club paid NorthEast United £ 200,000-plus for the 20 year-old midfielder who has already won six caps for India.

SC East Bengal, one of the oldest and best supported clubs in India, have had a troublesome close season and at one stage, it looked as though they had lost their backer, Shree Cement. differences were patched-up but Robbie Fowler, their coach, departed at the beginning of September and the club appointed Manolo Díaz, the manager of Spanish club Hércules of Alicante. The 2020-21 season was their first in the Indian Super League after winning promotion from the I-League. This year, they have been bold in the transfer market, signing the likes of Jackichand Singh and Adil Khan on loans from Hyderabad and Mumbai City respectively. They have also signed Croatian forward Antonio Perošević from Ujpest of Budapest, also on a one-year loan.

SC East Bengal are not the only club to have had financial worries over the past few years. Pune, Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru, Mumbai FC, Churchill Brothers, United SC and JCT Mills, among others, have all run into problems.

As football around the world returns to something approaching normal, the Indian Super League could be facing a vital campaign in 2021-22. There is a desire to encourage development of Indian players, hence the limit of four foreigners on the field per team at any one time, even though a club can sign as many as six overseas professionals. This has to be a positive move, although fans are always attracted by shining talent from abroad. But the sustainability of any up-and-coming product does depend on the development of local players and coaches, as other leagues have discovered. 

The Asian dream may remain elusive for Europe’s corporate clubs

AS Europe’s international teams close in on the final stages of the 2020 European Championship, the shadow of the European Super League mutiny refuses to disperse. 

The contribution to Europe’s football strength is underlined in the surviving squads in the competition – 48 players are from the ESL dozen, including 14 from England and one less from Spain. These players are part of the reason why the project was aimed not just at Europe but also rising football nations. With the exception of the top South American players, European players are a strong currency in Asia Pacific’s many football markets. They represent aspiration, glamour and prosperity, a way out of poverty and the realisation of dreams.

It is all too often uncovered that western business looks at the potential-rich expanse of Asia and its growing middle classes in much the same way a cartoon character’s eyes turn to dollar signs when good fortune comes their way. This exposé of human nature represents the more cynical side of capitalism and can often become evident when traditional markets start to see the graph head south or demand begins to evaporate. 

With brands becoming so powerful and continually refreshing their offering to preserve customer appetite, the life cycle of any consumable, be it a phone, a computer or other forms of technology, can be relatively short. Such is the pace of modern business that the saturation point can be reached sooner than in the past.

When the financial crisis of 2008 broke and banks and corporates eventually climbed out of the mire, they spoke warmly and enthusiastically about the opportunities in Brazil, China, India and Russia. The BRICS, a phrase coined by Manchester United fan Jim O’Neill who was with Goldman Sachs when the world turned upside down, were supposed to be the way out of crisis and the platform for future growth. 

Although they reinforced their emerging market presence to fight on the battlegrounds of South America, Asia and the Steppes, there seemed to be a little cynicism about it all. These countries had, after all, seen banks move in and out of these markets as and when it suited them. 

In some respects, football adopted a similar strategy in so far that the big clubs have concentrated on building global franchises which really amounts to enticing Asian and American fans. It would seem some clubs may have reached saturation point in their own countries. 

European football is not generally a pastime where allegiances are transferable – as the misogynistic music hall wag on the terraces would tell you, “you change your wife but not your club”. Europe’s football-watching public has, to a certain degree, strengthened the theory that the game has become ecclesiastical among its followers, where emotions are over-dependent on 22 young men on a well manicured field, playing a game where the margin of success is extremely fragile.

If the truth was known, the 12 mutineers were aiming at a market that has very different football values than Europe’s mature locations. They may also have overlooked the fact that Asian football leagues are growing, creating their own heroes, fanbases and cultures. China, as one example, is no longer an undeveloped football nation, but at the same time, it is not a football nation like any found in Europe. The government has been very influential in China’s story, encouraging overseas investment on one hand but pulling back the reins when it got out of control. This should not surprise anyone who has any knowledge of China’s history, but there is something a little uncomfortable about the way European football, a child of capitalism, reaches out to a country that until very recently was inaccessible and mysterious.

But if the European Super League’s grandees thought China and its football fans would embrace the European Super League, they might have been in for a shock. Brand Finance research demonstrated that among football fans, the Chinese Super League is still the most followed across the country. Similarly, Japanese football fans are very loyal to their own teams, even though they also have an appetite for big Premier League clubs.

There is a danger that Asia will, eventually, develop strong affection for its own creations and young fans may realise that there is a fine line between customer exploitation and creating a “global family” supporting the club. Some clubs have got it more right than others, and it has to be said there seems a genuine attempt to create friendships and partnerships, but it has to be about something more than just monetising social media followers.

North American fans also have their own leagues and club cultures. Major League Soccer, which may have inspired club owners to pursue a competition which delivered more business certainty than those found in England, Spain and Italy, continues to grow and appears to be well-run and pragmatic. Brand Finance’s research also revealed that 31% of football fans choose MLS first as their league of choice.

If the ESL was to launch, it is fairly clear they may have found a tepid response from fanbases they anticipated would warm to the chance to patronise a new, glitzy, elitist product. The mood in Europe was very clear – the ESL was seen as a heinous crime.

When the ESL collapsed, analysts seemed to be more concerned with the lost business opportunity rather than the havoc an elitist, structure-threatening synthetic league would wreak. The statement made by Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli that Gen Z is not interested in football lacked real substance. If he meant they cannot afford football, then he may be right, but floating the ESL boat away would merely have created “wasteland football”.

What sort of fans do European clubs want in Asia? Most will never get to see their teams in the flesh, so their relationship with the club may only ever be virtual. Clubs can “sell” something that is lifestyle-orientated or an aspirational acquisition, but the real essence of being a fan will inevitably elude the majority. 

No longer are the west’s clubs football missionaries – that job was completed a long time ago. Football is a global game, a global language, so nobody has to be convinced of that. For globalisation to really show its benefits, clubs from emerging regions needs to be able to look their opposite numbers from Europe in the eye and, ultimately, compete with them. Using developing football markets as a place to sell raw materials is outdated – and haven’t we been somewhere like this before?

Photo: ALAMY

China’s football faces a lengthy trek for credibility

CHINA’s dream of hosting and winning a World Cup looks a little forlorn at present, the national team has stalled and the Chinese Super League (CSL), once the destination for pension fund-building players and football mercenaries, is at something of a crisis point. 

The world looked to China in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, along with Brazil, India and Russia, the so-called BRICS. These economies were supposed to take up the slack as more mature markets struggled to come to terms with debt, economic stagnation and banking crises. Over a decade later, China finds itself at the centre of the covid-19 pandemic and another economic challenge.

Over zealous

China grew at an alarming pace after the financial crisis and against this backdrop, the country’s football clubs started to go international, spending large sums on talent in a bid to make the Chinese Super League a compelling product, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, Chinese investors started to buy stakes in European clubs, including Inter Milan, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion and Atlético Madrid. Some investors overpaid for their assets and also took on high levels of debt.

The initial strategy  – which appeared over-zealous at times – was to assist President Xi Jinping’s ambition for Chinese football by learning to run big clubs in other countries. Then they started to withdraw as the Chinese government discouraged further investment and insisted investors had to demonstrate synergies between their international business and Chinese football. The underlying concern was that money being poured into foreign football would be better spent at home. Furthermore, some critics believed Europe was literally feeding off of China’s huge resources and enthusiasm, and not just around football. China’s outbound cross-border mergers and acquisitions fell sharply. In 2017, there were 20 Chinese-owned clubs outside of China, that figure has halved since then.

With the world suffering from the covid-19 pandemic, China’s economy is bouncing back in 2021, GDP growing by 18.3% in the first quarter of the year. This was largely anticipated by analysts as a year ago, China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades. This downturn impacted China’s football, for most clubs are owned by major corporations. Hence, the fortunes of the clubs are precariously linked to their owners’ performance.

A case in point is the tale of 2020 Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu Suning, owned by the Suning Appliance group. In December 2020, all the shares of Suning Holding group were pledged to Alibaba’s Taobao to secure a loan. To stave off liquidity concerns, Suning announced it would buy back US$ 305 million worth of bonds with its own capital. This triggered a slump in the company’s share price. Despite China’s economic growth, many of its major corporates are having financial difficulties and Suning announced in February that it would dissolve the Jiangsu club. A lot of people are unhappy and claim that Jiangsu were sacrificed to ensure Suning’s other interest, the new Serie A champions Inter Milan, could continue. The Chinese government has bought a 23% stake in Suning, clearly to protect one of their most prominent commercial names. Another thought is that should China be responsible for the collapse of one of Europe’s greatest clubs, the president’s football dream would suffer a mortal blow.

Jiangsu are not the only club to disappear – 20 clubs have left China’s professional leagues over the past two years and in 2020, 11 were expelled for financial problems and five more opted for voluntary liquidation. The way Chinese clubs operate  – 70% of total expenditure on player wages was commonplace – suggests that more may follow. For example, Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese champions eight times in 10 years, earned only a third of the US$ 450 million they spent in 2020. In 2019, the average Chinese Super League salary was US$ 1.2 million per year, which was more or less at the level of France’s Ligue 1. Even though crowds have remained stable in normal times, tickets are cheap, often the equivalent of below US$ 10. 

Without big-spending companies such as Fosun, Wanda, CEFC and TEDA, Chinese football would not have made the noise it has so far, but clubs are now forbidden from including their sponsors in their club names. Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou R&F are now known as Guangzhou FC and Guangzhou City respectively. Some analysts believe Chinese football should abandon single-owner models and implement multiple stakeholder structures that include government, private enterprise, local communities and high net worth individuals. Instead of relying on regular injections of life-saving cash from their parent companies, Chinese clubs need to build more revenues from sponsorship, matchdays, player trading and broadcasting.

The government has also insisted on salary caps, imposing a limit of five million yuan for Chinese players (€ 650,000) and € 3 million (Yuan 23 million) for foreigners. Chinese players averaged € 709,000 annually (double the well established J-League) compared to € 7.5 million for foreign players. As a result, there has been an exodus of overseas players from China. 

Continued faith

Unsurprisingly, the corporates are now being encouraged to keep faith with Chinese football. The President of the Chinese FA, Chen Xuyan told them they have a responsibility and to treat football as a public welfare issue and accept that it may be non-profitable. No other country could issue such a statement and expect to get away with it. And there’s more – there is currently a political move to get more players to join the Communist party. 

Meanwhile, the new season is underway and China’s World Cup qualifying campaign is in progress. There are still some star names, but they are getting older – Oscar, the former Chelsea midfielder who went to China at the peak of his career, is now 29; Marouane Fellaini of Shandong Taishan is 33; Marko Arnautović is 32; and Mousa Dembélé is 33. With the restrictions on pay, the Chinese Super League is not as attractive to the “have boots, will travel” contingent.

The national team has beaten Guam and the Maldives in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers but they have Syria in their five-team group, who have already beaten them. World Cup qualification would be a boost to the domestic game, but China are still lowly-ranked (77th) and languish below countries like Curacao and Cabo Verde. More positively, soccer schools are opening all the time and youth development has also benefitted from foreign involvement, such as Bundesliga clubs. A football culture is developing in China, but maybe not at the speed government officials envisaged, fans are distracted by their interest in the European game, notably the Premier League. China may eventually become a powerhouse in the distant future, but right now the journey looks a long and patient one, but it will remain an interesting story.

Photo: ALAMY