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Jan 20, 2012

The Indian football revolution

When Indian football makes international headlines it is usually for another failure in the world's most popular game by the world's second-most populous nation. However, that certainly wasn't the case this week with the announcement of a new Indian football league due to start at the end of February with a host of big name stars ready to excite fans, sponsors and media.

This six-team tournament in the eastern state of West Bengal, the sub-continent's most passionate football region, will see each club fitted with an 'icon' such as Fabio Cannavaro, Robert Pires or Robbie Fowler. These familiar faces will be auctioned off live on television before the start of the season, set to run from February 25 to April 8, and coached by well-known names such as John Barnes, Fernando Couto and Peter Reid.

If it all sounds similar to the big-money Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket competition, which introduced big money and glamour to the sport in 2008, it isn't. Well, at least not completely, according to Bhaswar Goswami. Hoswami is executive director of Celebrity Management Group, which has just signed a 20-year contract - with the option of ten more years - to stage the league with Indian football authorities.

"The idea is not from the IPL," Goswami tells ESPsoccernet. "We have only taken one aspect and that is the auction of the players before the start of the season. In fact, everything else is modeled on the MLS." A revenue-sharing franchise system may be working well in North America but adapting it to a cricket-mad country, even one that is starting to cast the occasional glance in the direction of the beautiful game, is not going to be easy. The cricket version of the league boasted the biggest names and best players on the planet. In football, the likes of Cannavaro and Fowler are well known but well past their best, last seen playing in the United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

"There are completely different set-ups," Goswami points out. "Football is based on clubs. Cricket is based on national teams, there are not many strong club leagues, except perhaps the English county cricket leagues. Even if we wanted to, we are never going to get a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Messi. We just can't.

"We wanted to have an icon for each team to bring star value to the league and make the right kind of noises in the country. They also, of course, have to excite the Indian fans and tempt them to come to the stadium so we went for players who have been well-known to Indian fans for a long time and fans around the world. Most of the icons will be changed every year so fans will be able to feel the excitement every year." One for next year could be Hidetoshi Nakata, who was busy with other commitments this time. "He is only 34 and could easily play here," Goswami says. "We are interested in Asian players. We are hoping next year that each team will have one Asian."

Goswami rattled off the names of the players and all they had achieved in their impressive careers to achieve the status of icons. There will be other, more ordinary imports from South America, especially from Colombia and Bolivia but "all the players are top quality."

It all sounds exciting in the short-term. The auctions, the unveiling, the kick-offs. But the real challenge will be sustaining interest and the real test will be how it looks two or three years from now. According to Goswami, the answer will come with the development of young Indian players.

"As well as the foreign stars, all of the other players are Indian players and then each club will have a top coach from around the world. Coaches are of huge importance in the game and this is the first time that talented young Indian players can share the dressing room with some of the top players in the world and also, some of the best-known coaches from around the world. They have never had this.

"In India, we don't have stars in football, except for Bhaichung Bhutia, and haven't had for a long time. We want home-grown stars. Whenever you develop a sport, you depend on the homegrown stars. For cricket fans, it always feels great when you see Ganguly making a century for India. The fans will always be proud to see their own boys perform. That is the basic essence of the whole model."

India already has a model for young players and that is the I-League. This started with ten teams back in 2007 and now has expanded to 14. It has still some way to go to become a central part of the nation's sporting infrastructure but it is slowly growing in strength and professionalism. It is also where the nation's best young players go to play. There is even a club, Palian Arrows, which is made up solely of the most promising prospects in the country and plays in the top tier with the best that the country has to offer.

Some fans have already expressed concerns that the local players who make up the majority of these new teams will be those deemed of insufficient quality to appear in the I-League, not something that is going to get the general public especially excited.

But Goswami claims there is no problem. "There is not actually a huge difference between the youngsters who play in the I-League and the ones that don't and I think if you ask any club officials, they will vouch for that. There is only a very small difference. Don't forget, there are only 14 I-league clubs and there is a huge pool of players in India." He also claims that authorities are happy with the new addition to the local football scene. "…The AIFF (Indian FA) were happy to agree to it. This will complement the league and we can create new stars that will eventually play in the I-league."

A similar question could be asked about the stadiums and facilities. The lack of top-class facilities is a huge problem that Indian football faces. The standard of the average I-league stadium may leave a little to be desired but it is likely to be higher than the ones that will be used by the likes of Cannavaro, Crespo and Pires.

"We have chosen cities with at least a stadium of 20,000 capacity and one 5-star hotel. Only one has floodlights. In the first year, we will start installing floodlights in each one and over the next three to five years, they will all be upgraded. The money from this will come from the league and the franchises themselves as they will benefit. Sponsors will also be involved - it will be a three-way plan." This triumvirate - clubs, league and sponsors - is, organisers hope, the path to success for football in India.

"This will be the first ever real pro tournament played in India with real professional clubs," Goswani continues. "Each franchise will make profit at least from year 2. They have an expense cap of $2.5 million, so they must make a profit. They will share 50% of central revenues from the league. This is income from television at home and overseas and commercial ventures from the league and they will have their own sponsors and ticket revenue. It is going to be great for Indian football."

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