Its backers include some of the biggest names in Indian sport, business and Bollywood who hope it will help the country shed its image as the sleeping giant of world soccer, but the Indian Super League (ISL), which promises to lure a galaxy of former stars out of retirement, is already facing skepticism and even downright hostility from within the game about five months ahead of its first game.
“It’s going to kill the sleeping giant without allowing it a chance to wake up and get out of bed,” said Valanka Alemao, the chief executive of Churchill Brothers, ex-champions of India’s current domestic league. “This is such a weak-structured tournament that it’s bound to fail.”
Despite being the world’s second most populous nation, India has long struggled in world soccer and is currently ranked 145th out of 207 in the governing body FIFA’s rankings.
The sleeping giant tag was first coined by FIFA president Sepp Blatter on a visit to India in 2007, but with even war-torn Syria and Afghanistan now ranked higher, some wags have said the snooze has become a coma.
Cricket dominates the back pages, but matches in the existing I-League domestic championship attract significant crowds in some parts of the country, and the English Premiership is a major driver behind the growth of satellite TV there.
So it was no surprise when Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV was revealed as one of the backers of the new ISL along with other big names such as sports management giant IMG.
And in an echo of the format for cricket’s glitzy Indian Premier League (IPL), it was announced last week that eight city-based franchises with famous frontspeople would take part in the two-month-long competition from September.
Co-owners include cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar, Bollywood A-listers Salman Khan and Ranbir Kapoor as well as Atletico Madrid, leaders of Spain’s La Liga.
Nita Ambani, chairwoman of the joint venture IMG-Reliance marketing group, which conceived the idea of the league, forecast that it would pave the way for “the nation’s sporting renaissance.”
“Football, with its largely untapped potential in the country, has the opportunity to grow to an unrivaled commercial success quite unlike any other sport,” Ambani, wife of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, said in a statement.
A more measured assessment came from former national cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, co-owner of the Kolkata franchise. He said the league could be a force for good even if it does not supplant cricket as India’s No. 1 game.
“Don’t compare it with the IPL or cricket,” Ganguly said. “It’s the start of something good. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, things will improve.”
As with its cricketing forerunner, organizers of the ISL hope a mixture of local talent and international stars will bring in the crowds.
However, while the likes of Tendulkar, Ganguly and South Africa’s record-breaking all-rounder Jacques Kallis graced the IPL from the beginning, no big names have yet been confirmed for the ISL.
Those who have been mentioned are long past their prime, such as former France and Arsenal striker Thierry Henry, Argentina’s retired marksman Hernan Crespo and ex-Manchester United forward Dwight Yorke.
Former Indian soccer captain I.M. Vijayan said youngsters could learn from legends of the game.
“I am happy for our young players, who will gain financially and learn from top stars,” he said.