It’s just NOT cricket. That, in a nutshell, is the biggest obstacle the Indian Super League faces when it launches in October. It is football sold and packaged with the successful IPL formula. A burst of action over an intense couple of months. Big names, star backers (none bigger than team owner Sachin Tendulkar). Not too may teams (eight), a good spread around the country’s major cities, and a big focus on marketing, promotion, sponsorship and advertisers.
There’s no obvious downside to trying to finally kick-start major interest in Indian football.
The lack of progress over the last decade has surprised me. Back in 2002 I presented live coverage of the World Cup, shown live across India and the subcontinent, broadcasting for Dubai-based company Ten Sports. India’s star player at the time, Baichung Bhutia, was flown out to Dubai to be a pundit for all 64 games alongside me and former England World Cup player Gary Stevens. I talked at length to Baichung off-air about the genuine strides football in India was starting to make.
Not least his own role literally as a poster boy. When I visited India a year later he was on almost as many posters as Tendulkar because of a large promotion he was involved with. But to underline the lack of overall quality in India, Bhutia had failed to make a big impact playing for Bury in the lower leagues in England. Yes he was skilful and talented – I played against him enough times in Dubai to see just how skilful – but coping with the sheer physicality in England was an insurmountable obstacle.
India is still only ranked 150 by FIFA. But like most places on earth this is not a nation that doesn’t understand football. There’s a typically large interest in the English Premier League, and witness touring cricketers enjoying kick-abouts in training across England’s cricket outfields. But one hundred and fifty for a nation with this much football potential?
It’s not good enough, and the Indian league officials who spoke to us at Soccerex in Manchester understand something has to be done.
“The ISL was created to bring in extra attention and glamour to Indian football,” Indian Football League. Chairman Sunando Dhar said. “That will have a tumble down effect into other parts of Indian football.”
Young Indian talent are inevitably being mixed with ageing world stars. Del Piero, Trezeguet, Pires, Ljungberg and Anelka the biggest, making the ISL on paper reminiscent of the North American league in the ’70s rather than the IPL cricket.
But let’s also consider the case of Michael Chopra, the English striker whose father’s family is from India. Chopra has had personal problems and could do with a fresh challenge like this – but is adamant that he wants to develop talent in the nation and help compete with cricket.
He’ll be playing for Tendulkar’s team Kerala Blasters and tells us: “I want to be part of creating a football legacy in the country.”
But first the sleeping giant needs to prove it is a case of the giant awakening.
The dream scenario is early interest being ignited by the publicity and stars, a competitive and intense 10 weeks raising awareness and anticipation for the following year and the year after that. That it will invigorate the Indian League and help the national team finally start to make a genuine impact in Asian competitions and beyond.
But while the league apes cricket, everyone involved needs to be careful not to expect to generate the hysteria of the IPL. It really is a phenomenom. Some even feel it’s TOO powerful and has too much influence on the world game.
There will be some genuine football fans watching in India. But perhaps a local player could be forgiven for playing to the crowd if there’s a dispute over whether his shot crosses the line.
By scoring a goal and turning to appeal to the referee in true cricket style: “Howzat.”
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport