Bold gamble in football's City of Joy

Kolkata beckons as John Barnes joins coaching line-up for tournament aiming to capture Indian footballing imagination.

    The all-star tournament won't be short of a few fans - in 2008 over 120,000 mostly Indian supporters came to farewell Germany and Bayern goalie Oliver Kahn in a friendly against Mohun Bagan in Kolkata [EPA]

    John Barnes lives a life on the move.

    After taking care of fatherly duties with his 13-month-old son at his Merseyside home this week, the former Liverpool winger hit the road to appear as a studio expert on British television coverage of the FA Cup.
    In addition to considerable mileage on UK motorways, he spends more than six months of the year travelling to places like South Africa, the United Arab Emirates as well as Malaysia to share his much sought after views on Europe’s top leagues.
    Now the 48-year-old faces a journey into the unknown.

    Barnes will be one of six coaches for a new, all-star football tournament in Kolkata starting next month, with the aim of replicating the success of cricket’s Indian Premier League. It will be his first visit to India.
    “I don’t know much more about it than you do, just what came out in the papers this week as I’ve been dealing though an agent,” he explained from a hands-free telephone in his car.

    “But I’m really looking forward to visiting a different part of the world and being involved in something new.”
    The 79-cap England international will join ex-Thailand and Sunderland boss Peter Reid and former Bolton mentor Colin Todd as big-name managers in the fledgling competition.

    A January 27 auction will decide which franchises the coaches are aligned to before the six-week tournament from February 25 to April 8.

    Return to management
    For Barnes, it will be his first serious foray into management since being sacked by Tranmere Rovers towards the end of 2009. He’s also coached Scottish giants Celtic as well as the national team of his birth nation, Jamaica.
    “Coaching and being a manager is what I love to do so it will be great to be out on the pitch again,” he said.

    “As it was when I grew up in Jamaica, football isn’t the main sport in India, but I hear there’s strong support. I hope the tournament is a big success.”
    Barnes’ former Liverpool teammate Robbie Fowler, who’s a player-coach in the Thailand league, is one of the veteran superstars reported to have signed up.

    Italy’s World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, ex-French international Robert Pires and former Argentina striker Hernan Crespo are among the others in a pool of 30 foreigners up for grabs for the six teams.
    It’s a fair bet that the tournament will spark a wave of initial interest in the state of West Bengal, which houses the nation’s best-supported clubs in Mohun Bagan and Kingfisher East Bengal.

    It's not just cricket - a huge interest in football gives the tourney organisers ambitious plans [EPA]

    Having hosted TV coverage of two IFA Shield finals at Kolkata’s cavernous Salt Lake Stadium a few years ago, I’ve witnessed first-hand the level of passion that Kolkata holds for the round ball game.

    I had to remind myself that I was, in fact in India, and not South America.
    Only in Kolkata could sports fans go ga-ga over the Bayern Munich reserve team, who won the 2005 IFA Shield by beating local side, EverReady 5-1 in the final, with Bayern’s 1974 World Cup legend Gerd Muller watching from the stands.

    Three years later at the same venue, almost 120,000 fans gave an emotional reception to Oliver Kahn in the German goalkeeper's Bayern farewell against Mohun Bagan.
    And earlier this month, Bayern played a friendly against the Indian national team before 35,000 fans at New Delhi’s Nehru Stadium that marked the final international appearance of striker Baichung Bhuthia, one of only a handful of Indians to have made a name in leagues outside his homeland.

    Ambitious plans

    With Celebrity Management Group (CMG) having signed a 30-year deal with the Indian Football Association, there are ambitious plans to expand the league to other parts of India after the inaugural tournament.
    “I think it will be successful but only regionally, not all over India,” said Karim Bencherifa, the Moroccan coach of Indian champions, Salgaocar.

    “But any sort of publicity of Indian football is good. The ex-stars who will take part will help the popularity, which is very much needed.”
    Salgaocar are based in Goa, which along with the southern state of Kerala, is considered the second football capital of India. Bencherifa added that he wasn’t concerned that the rival tournament might steal the limelight from the I-League, which is currently in mid-season.
    “The I-League will still be India’s main competition and I don’t think the new one will affect it in any (negative) way,” he said.

    “In fact it may help in getting more fans in, plus give the opportunity to some players to show their worth and maybe get an I-League contract.”

    Every squad will have a mandatory six under-21 Indian players along with a maximum of four foreigners.
    But the litmus test for the new league will be how supporters react once the novelty wears off and they see the difference between perception and the 2012 reality of fading superstars in their mid to late 30s.

    Football is a more physically demanding sport than cricket and it will be difficult to paper over the cracks in warm and humid conditions against local players more than a decade younger, however technically inferior.
    And there may not be the emotional connection from past battles on Indian soil that feeds cricket’s IPL and prolongs and sometimes revives the careers of the long retired. That means that the average sports fan is more than willing to watch an Adam Gilchrist or a Shane Warne past their best.
    If ex-Real Madrid marksman Fernando Morientes or former Chelsea loanee Maniche are labouring around the pitch and struggling to keep up, it is a much more difficult sell.
    A kick-around with the great John Barnes and some Kolkata street kids might be better entertainment.

    Former CNN & BBC anchor Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever the world's first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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