Thu, Nov 20, 2014 - Page 19 News List

New Indian league already losing luster

AFP, NEW DELHI

Atletico de Kolkata goalkeeper Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, back, jumps to grab the ball in their Indian Super League match against Chennaiyin at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, India, on Friday.

Photo: AFP

Just five weeks after a glitzy kickoff, India’s fledgling soccer league claims to be the most popular in Asia — even if the quality of matches and performances of its aging stars have left fans underwhelmed.

Backed by some of the biggest names in business and sport, the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL) has lured a host of big-name internationals out of retirement to help India shed its image as the sleeping giant of world soccer.

Halfway through the competition, organizers — citing the latest figures — claim that on average, 22,639 fans have packed stadiums for each match, while a total of 318 million viewers watched on TV.

“[The] Indian Super League has achieved the rare milestone of having registered the highest average stadium attendance for any football league in Asia,” an ISL spokesman said, adding that the figures mark “India’s arrival as a footballing nation to the world.”

Yet on a smoggy night last week at the capital’s impressive Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, just 1,000-odd fans turned out to watch the bottom two teams — Delhi Dynamos and Goa — go head to head.

“It’s not the same as watching Arsenal play Chelsea, that’s for sure, but we should support our own league, our own Indian league,” 26-year-old computer college student Anindya Sharma said.

Warming the Delhi bench, Italian great Alessandro del Piero glumly watched his team get thumped 4-1.

The former Juventus striker called the league a “big challenge,” adding that he would reserve judgement until the tournament ends.

Although its the world’s second-most populous nation, India has long struggled in world soccer and currently stands at 159 — out of 208 countries — in the FIFA rankings.

Cricket dominates on the subcontinent and soccer at the grassroots level has long been neglected.

However, the English and other European leagues are hugely popular on satellite TV, and passion for local teams has long existed in pockets of the country, especially in former British colonial capital Kolkata and ex-Portugese colony Goa.

Sensing the commercial potential, Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV is backing the ISL, along with sports management giant IMG and the Reliance group, run by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.

The league has slick advertisements, Bollywood A-listers as co-owners and famous players, but India’s best-known soccer writer, Novy Kapadia, said the initial excitement has dwindled.

“There is no emotional attachment to any team in India, no passion. Delhi was beaten 4-1, but nobody came out crying, nobody cared,” he said, adding that he is concerned about if the ISL is committed to fostering soccer at the grassroots level.

Brazilian great and Goa manager Zico also urged the ISL to join forces with the I-League to provide a much larger pool of Indian players and said organizers should slow the frenetic pace of the tournament, which has 61 matches in 10 weeks.

Zico said he was confident the ISL would succeed, but some gathered at the Delhi stadium were skeptical.

Student Kritika Khurana decided to treat her brother, Kartik, and his friend to the Delhi game.

“Yeah it’s OK, but cricket is much better than this,” Kartik said.

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