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Indian Super League high on ambition, short-seeming on the football

While a number of high-profile figures are throwing in with the Indian Super League hoping to make a splash in world football, many local voices are arguing the foundation for the tournament is shaky.
Sourav Ganguly, left, and Sanjiv Goenka, vice-chairman of RPG Enterprises, pose with footballs during a press conference to announce their ownership of the Kolkata franchise in the upcoming Indian Super League on April 14, 2014. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
Sourav Ganguly, left, and Sanjiv Goenka, vice-chairman of RPG Enterprises, pose with footballs during a press conference to announce their ownership of the Kolkata franchise in the upcoming Indian Super League on April 14, 2014. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

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 football.

But the Indian Super League, which promises to lure a galaxy of former stars out of retirement, is already facing scepticism and even downright hostility from within the game some five months ahead of kick-off.

“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 second most populous nation, India has long struggled in world football 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 here.

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 frontmen 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 unrivalled 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 told AFP.

“It’s the start of something good. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, things will improve.”

As with its cricketing forerunner, organisers of the ISL hope a mixture of local talent and international stars will bring in the crowds.

But while the likes of Tendulkar, Ganguly and South Africa’s record-breaking allrounder 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 football captain IM 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.

Each of the eight teams will be allowed to draft 10 foreign players, with a proviso that at least 50 of them in the 80-man pool should have played for their national teams.

But with ISL dates clashing with the start of major leagues around the world and the organisers facing stiff opposition from local clubs, finalising both the foreign and Indian talent will not be easy.

“Let’s face it, India is a non-entity in world football and will find it tough to attract top players,” the country’s best-known football writer Novy Kapadia told AFP.

“At the most, you will get second-string players, mainly from Africa, or those unlucky ones who are not contracted to any club. The September-November window just does not make sense. This whole thing is a gimmick.”

Kapadia was not surprised that many I-League clubs remained hesitant to release their players on grounds that the ISL will threaten their existence.

“No country hosts two (competing) leagues, because you can’t give equal importance to both,” Kapadia said. “The clubs could slowly be eased out.”

Churchill Brothers’ Alemao said the ISL would be “detrimental” to Indian football.

“Some retired foreign players will probably laugh their way to the bank, but without a strong youth developmental base, Indian football will crumble,” she told reporters last week.

“Interest from the corporates is very welcome in our sport. But why are they not tying up with existing clubs, instead of floating a ridiculous super league?”

Similar plans last year by football officials in the state of West Bengal for a franchise-based league featuring fading stars like Crespo and Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro failed to take off.

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Updated: April 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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