Can star names help the Indian Super League shine?
Sepp Blatter is a frequent visitor to India and in 2013, FIFA awarded the country the right to host the 2017 U17 World Cup. It's all part of a drive to turn the subcontinent into a football heartland. The world game sees India as a sleeping giant -- home to a billion plus -- that must be kicked awake. Doing the kicking in the latest attempt will be the famous feet of Robert Pires, David Trezeguet, Freddie Ljungberg and Luis Garcia as they start the inaugural India Super League.
These "marquee" names belong to four of the eight new franchise teams ready to start the tournament that is due to run from October to December. Each club, from Kerala in the south to Delhi in the north, Mumbai in the west to Kolkata in the east, will have one such star name, seven other foreign players and then a bunch of domestic helpers to complete the squads.
Part of the talent is allocated on a draft system and if it sounds a little like the Indian Premier League, the richest cricket competition in the world, that's because it is -- as organisers freely admit.
Such "suits" are not part of a consortium led by Bhaswar Goswami, who had a similar idea and roped in stars such as Fabio Cannavaro, Herman Crespo and Robbie Fowler. That league never got off the ground. This is a project run by IMG-Reliance. The former is a US-based global sports and media group, and the latter is a major Indian conglomerate. Together, they are the marketing partners of the AIFF, the Indian federation, and are influential, some say too much so, in the country's football scene.
Despite the fact that the ISL has been postponed three times already, there is quite a buzz, and not all of it is down to aging Europeans. The franchises have been snapped up by some interesting parties. Atletico Madrid have teamed up with cricket star Sourav Ganguly to take over the Kolkata club, Atletico de Kolkata. Another cricket legend, Sachin Tendulkar, is involved with the Kerala Blasters, and there are numerous Bollywood stars, local businesses and even some I-League clubs such as Pune FC that are collaborating with Fiorentina to get FC Pune City off the ground.
The relationship between the new league and the I-League is crucial for the all parties, as well as Indian football in general. The established tournament has been the subcontinent's professional league since 2007. Run by the AIFF, there has been growth, even if it has been slow and patchy. Recently though, there have been encouraging signs such as the rise of Shillong Lajong and the relatively slick operations of new boys such as Pune and Bengaluru.
There is a second division and an average attendance of around 5,000 that may not be great, but is not terrible given the fact that most stadiums don't have floodlights forcing afternoon kickoffs when the heat can deter more casual fans. If the new, lucrative league can help facilities improve, that will be something.
Four I-League teams have agreed to release some of their players for the new competition -- an improvement from the initial none -- who will then return to their parent clubs in December, once the ISL is over, ready for the new season. There have been concerns about fatigue and reports over contract complications and some players not receiving the money from the new league that they initially expected, but there is a hope that the extra games will help make a professional career in India more lucrative and attractive for talented youngsters.
In general, though, fans and media are skeptical (especially as ISL postponements mean the start of the I-League is also delayed and will miss October and November, two of the three peak football months in the country in terms of weather) about whether the new league will be good deal for Indian football.
Much depends on the stars. Trezeguet, Ljungberg, Garcia and Pires are well-known, but they would have been much more impressive five years ago. Since then, much has happened, or not, as the case may be. Pires is now 40 and has not had a club since leaving Aston Villa in 2011. Former Arsenal teammate Ljungberg retired in 2012 after an unimpressive and brief spell with Shimizu S-Pulse in Japan. Garcia is relatively young at 36, but he hung up his boots in January. Trezeguet had a foray into Asia in 2011, playing just three games for Baniyas in UAE before claiming homesickness and heading to Argentina.
To be fair, the likes of Ljungberg and Pires have been stressing their role to promote the game in the country off the pitch and this is more important than anything they can do, or perhaps these days can't do, on it. Their names can grab attention -- the local media will love asking them questions about the strengths and weaknesses of Indian football (although this would have been the same if they had joined I-League clubs) -- for a while, but holding it for long will be a different challenge entirely. The novelty and brevity will ensure attention and news for a year or two, but for it to make a real difference, that has to be just a start.
What comes next is unclear. Are these retired or almost-retired stars there to get a foothold for bigger and younger names to follow or for locals to step up? Promoting football in the nation is presumably meant to encourage young people to play and support the game but this support is surely best directed towards the I-League, with its links -- in theory at least -- to local communities and the rest of the Indian football pyramid. The ISL sits outside the system.
If they are to work together, the existing league has to be the senior partner. Yet what happens if the ISL becomes more successful? What happens if the I-League suffers in the shadow of its slicker and richer cousin and fans and media turn away? Usually, it would make sense for the organisers of the ISL to want the competition to become number one, but when those organisers are the marketing partners of the body that actually runs the other league, the waters could become muddied.
If the ISL with its hype and stars actually does make the breakthrough and opens the door for football in India, then which league is going to be the one to walk through? Will the new boy be content, having dribbled through the defence, to roll a simple pass along the edge of the six-yard box for the I-League to score an open goal, or will it want the glory for itself?
Nobody will know for a long time to come. It could be huge, it could be nothing, or it could never happen at all. There are lots of questions to be answered, but it was ever thus in Indian football.