India’s new football league with its cast of celebrity owners, experienced foreign managers and a sprinkling of high-profile players will kick off on Sunday, igniting hopes of waking the country from its football slumber.
Italian World Cup winners Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi, Spain’s Joan Capdevila and Luis Garcia, and French stars David Trezeguet and Robert Pires have all signed up to play in the Indian Super League.
Cricket-obsessed India, with its population of 1.2 billion, is ranked 158th in the world, leading FIFA President Sepp Blatter to call it the ‘sleeping giant’ of world football.
Indian football had somewhat stagnated. Nothing great was happening and we were not progressing at the desirable rate
The national league has failed to inspire youngsters to take up the sport, which remains popular only in certain areas of the country, while the appetite to watch televised games is restricted to the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.
Aiming for change
Modelled on cricket’s popular Indian Premier League, the ISL, with its franchise-based model, slick promotion and branding, and the presence of stars from cricket and the country’s film industry, is aiming to change all that.
“Indian football had somewhat stagnated,” All India Football Federation (AIFF) Vice President Subrata Dutta told Reuters recently.
“Nothing great was happening and we were not progressing at the desirable rate. We have been hovering between 140 and 160 in rankings for many years now and we needed something big to push us forward.
“We at the AIFF felt that an explosion is needed in Indian football. We felt the ISL would give the necessary push to Indian football, it would make a difference.”
The tournament, to be played in a round-robin format, will then move around the country to the seven other cities.
The top four sides will qualify for the semi-finals, which will be played over two legs, with the winners advancing to a one off final.