In less than two days, the Indian Super League will become a reality, when Atletico de Kolkata plays hosts to Mumbai City FC at the 120,000-capacity Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata. On the face of it, the eight-team league has an underlying object of raising the standard of football in India by nurturing a vast pool of young talent, which has shunned the game that doesn’t pay them as professionals. The underlying realities, however, could be different as there are more vested interests than those, which are immediately evident. Elsewhere in the world, even in supposedly poor African nations, football is played for national pride and talking about Europe and South America, football is pursued with religious fervor. But the scenario is vastly different for 1.2 billion people of India, where no one talks about football and its players with a possible exception of small pockets of Goa, Kerala and West Bengal. Organized by IMG-Reliance in collaboration with Rupert Murdoch’s Star India group and the AIFF, the ISL could be a game changer and the best thing that could have happened to India in years. But the road is long and too far ahead and as stated above; behind all the purported good intentions, the reality could be different. They may be talking something but most franchise owners, rich cricketers or film stars, would be more interested in getting handsome returns on their investments. The seriousness of rebuilding football culture in India comes next. There is another issue of foreign recruits since most of them are, at best, discards from their parent clubs in Europe or South America. With astronomical player fees ruling in those countries, getting the best talent will be a dream in the early stages of ISL.
Some 50-odd years ago, Indian football was not in such a bad shape. Many people today will be surprised to know that India qualified for the 1950 FIFA World Cup at Brazil. It was an entry by default for India because Philippines, Indonesia and Burma withdrew. But the AIFF couldn’t understand the importance of the event and decided against going to the World Cup, citing reasons related to lack of travel expenses, paucity of practice time, team selection issues and preference to Olympic Games over FIFA World cup. Despite the lost opportunity, 1951-1962 was the golden era of Indian football. Cricket those days was restricted to occasional test series and football remained the most popular street game. In these 10-12 years, India became Asia’s best team beginning with their gold medal in the 1951 New Delhi Asian Games. Indian football had a guru called Syed Abdul Rahim, who wanted nothing but the best. In 1952, India won the Colombo Quadrangular Cup held in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Indian football team continued to maintain their superiority in the Quadrangular Cup by winning in 1953 at Burma, 1954 at Calcutta and 1955 at Dhaka. In 1954 Manila Asian Games, India finished second. In 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India reached the semifinals but lost to Bulgaria in the bronze medal match. In 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, India finished fourth and in 1959 Merdeka Cup they finished second. Indian won another Asian Games gold in 1962. Until 1966, India continued to be counted as a strong Asian Side but the deterioration began soon afterwards. Today India languishes as No.158 in FIFA world rankings and rising so many rungs upwards is a daunting task. Though football lovers in India are optimistic about the attempt of commercial houses to lift the quality of the game, there are so many factors, which will need to be addressed on the way. The media side of the 10-week long ISL will be handled by Star Sports, who have a huge commercial stake in the League. They will try their utmost to ensure that a large number of people are involved in ISL.
An important facet of football is spectator interest, which is always guided by the quality of the game. Today, sports lovers have a choice; if they don’t want a particular game, they can easily switch on to another channel to see a better game. That is one glitch of the ISL. The other one is recruitment of foreign players. These guys are discards, who couldn’t continue with their clubs in Europe and America because better talent got precedence over them in due course. But there are several positive factors that raise one’ optimism. The sponsors and commercial houses, who took cricket to such high pedestal, can do so for football. Serious Indian footballers, who see money as the main motivator will keep themselves committed. Knowing fully well that earnings are proportionate with their performance, the players will keep themselves in top shape. If the ISL franchises fight for superiority in the League, the fittest will survive and these guys can make a new football team for India. The fact that cricketers are investing their money in ISL, they must be confident of better things to come.
Mumbai City FC’s 35-year-old former Borussia Dortmund player Manuel Friedrich said that ISL will make football the number one sport in India just as everywhere else in the world. Friedrich was impressed with Indian talent and he thought that with a little effort, the technical aspects of the game can be altered. On Atletico de Kolkata, Friedrich said that the Kolkata squad had mostly Spanish players but he felt confident that FC Mumbai would not be found wanting against them.
Meanwhile film-star Hrithik Roshan is the latest on the celebrity list to join the ISL. He replaced Salman Khan as the co-owner of FC Pune City on Thursday. Once it was confirmed that Salman was backing out, the Wadhawan Group roped in Hrithik, who is on the seventh heaven after the success of his latest film Bang.