A new, franchise-based soccer league with celebrity owners is to be launched in India later this year, but not everyone is convinced that the initiative will help lift the country out of the lower echelons of the sport.
Spanish club Atletico Madrid, former cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. and top Bollywood actors are among the owners of eight franchises in the upcoming Indian Super League (ISL), which is to run from mid-September to the end of November.
Cricket-obsessed India languishes at 145th in the world rankings for soccer, prompting FIFA president Sepp Blatter to dub the country of 1.2 billion the “sleeping giant” of world soccer.
While its promoters are confident the league will revolutionize the game in India in much the same way that the Indian Premier League has done to the nation’s favorite sport, not everybody is on board.
The owners of I-League champions the Churchill Brothers are among the fiercest critics of the new tournament, believing it will do more harm than good.
“How do you even call it a league? You need at least six months to term yourself a league,” said Valanka Alemao, chief executive of the Goa-based club. “And in any country who plays the [FIFA] World Cup, have you ever heard of something so stupid and ridiculous as this tournament? I’m someone who will call a spade a spade. I’ll fight it tooth and nail. They want to kill the sleeping giants even before waking it [them] up.”
The ISL is promoted by India’s Reliance Industries, controlled by the nation’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, Rupert Murdoch’s Star India TV and sports management group IMG, which is also the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) marketing partner.
Organizers say franchises paid about US$25 million for a team for 10 years in the ISL, which has a Bollywood presence in the form of actors Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor and John Abraham, who will be co-owners.
“Celebrity owners and all is great, but football in our country requires a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work,” said Alemao, whose family own the Churchill Brothers. “I don’t think these celebrities have even watched Indian football. If the structure was good, I would have been the first to support it.”
Yet federation officials are confident such concerns can be addressed. Indian soccer’s governing body said it has asked the ISL franchises to invest in infrastructure, grassroots and youth development, adding that it believes the money on offer will inspire young locals to take up professional soccer.
“Indian football had somewhat stagnated. Nothing great was happening and we were not progressing at the desirable rate,” AIFF vice president Subrata Dutta said. “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 standard of competition and the quality of the foreign players playing in the tournament will be crucial, he added.
Many are not convinced the two leagues can coexist, but Dutta said the ISL will not diminish the existing competition.
“It will be like a curtain-raiser for the I-League, like a good starter and a good soup before the spectators are served the main course in the form of the I-League,” he said.