Glitzy new league seek to make India soccer power

Reuters, MUMBAI

Thu, May 08, 2014 - Page 19

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.

The stakeholders believe that if presented, packaged and promoted properly, the ISL will add sorely needed entertainment value and glamor to the game.

Soccer writer Jaydeep Basu does not doubt the ISL will be success, but is skeptical of how much it will benefit Indian soccer.

“It might bring back spectators to the ground and encourage more youngsters. It should be a commercial success in a few years, but Indian football will remain where it is,” Basu said. “If you could revolutionize the game with a two-month tournament then countries from Middle East would have done it many years ago. They would have won many World Cups by now. Nobody has the kind of money they have.”

Soccer is popular only in certain areas of India, while appetite for televised matches is restricted to the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.

FIFA has signed a 10-year agreement to develop the game in the world’s second-most populous country and the IMG-Reliance joint venture is four years into a 15-year deal as the commercial partner of the AIFF, which is worth 7 billion rupees (US$116.26 million).

“That India needed it [ISL] is a hoax. Who needed it? The marketing and broadcasting partners of the AIFF maybe,” Basu said. “The I-League has not been returning any money for the partners. The ISL is a business opportunity, they want to make their money back through this. So I am ready to agree if you tell me it’s a good chocolate, but don’t tell me chocolate is healthy.”