It’s all about the money, honey

Victory run. Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri celebrates his I-league success this year   -  PTI

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A new league hopes to bring IPL-like success to football

Come September, 23 of India’s finest footballers will pack their bags and head to South Korea for the Asian Games. Around the same time, the much-talked about Indian Super League (ISL) will make its debut in India. With an IPL-style format and big guns such as sports management giant IMG-Reliance backing it, the eight-franchise, two-month long tournament aims at bringing a revolution to Indian football. At the April auction, teams were bought by the usual suspects — Bollywood stars, sport celebs and media empires — starting at a base price of ₹25 crore per team. Sachin Tendulkar owns the Kerala Blasters; Sourav Ganguly has partnered with Atletico de Madrid for a Bengal club; and even John Abraham has acquired the Guwahati team with Shillong Lajong. Star TV’s 35 per cent stake of ₹2,000 crore for the next 15 years will guarantee the broadcast of the games. IMG-Reliance has already roped in former international players such as Robert Pires, Hernan Crespo and Louis Saha among others. The league also requires participating franchises to develop the game from the grassroots, revamp stadia and provide international-standard surfaces. With such ambitious plans, what’s to stop the ISL from climbing to IPL heights of fame and spawning numerous editions?

Launched in 2010, however, has seen nearly three years of inaction. Originally slated for January this year, the ISL postponed the launch date, inviting criticism. Now planned for September, the league is looking at another setback as the dates clash with the Asian Games. This will rule out the participation of the best Indian talent in the league. Even the team composition, as required by the ISL, is not in favour of local talent, with 10 foreigners, eight Indian professional players and four under-23 talents in each team. As football commentator Novy Kapadia says, “Even an unknown 22-year-old is better than a 40-year-old biggie.”

Then, there’s no room for two leagues. India’s football premier league, the Aircel I-league, the seventh edition of which concluded recently, will be the most hit by the emergence of the ISL. The I-league, which currently has 14 teams, will have to be truncated, with clubs, players and schedules split between the two leagues. Club loyalties will also be divided. “Bengal has three clubs already, Goa has three clubs, who will they support in the ISL,” says Kapadia.

Finally, finding club identities that can take root in cities like Kolkata and Panjim, where football fans hold hard and fast loyalties and rivalries, will be difficult say commentators. While the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) can dictate international cricketing agenda, IMG-Reliance and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) command no such stature in international football. Even if the IPL-style ISL takes off and generates big money, it will be hard to match Europe’s premier divisions — valued at more than $3 billion.

But it’s not all bad news for Indian football. The ISL is expected to bring in some major improvements, even if they are not all of the sporting kind. Stadia and surfaces will get a much-needed facelift and the media visibility will put the spotlight on Indian football for at least two months in a year. Fingers crossed for the 2026 World Cup.



Published on June 06, 2014
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