Indian Super League – The dawn of a new era

India’s most awaited football event is about to kick-off! The Indian Super League promises to a belter for every football fan across the country, and with India hosting the 2017 U17 FIFA World Cup, this football extravaganza will provide an image of reality. It is an immensely important and significant sporting event which will showcase India on the grand-stage. It is a question of whether the Indian Super League will ignite the hopes of waking the country from its football slumber or it is just another false dawn?

For starters, let me guide you through a little timeline:

9th December 2010: The All India Football Federation signs a 15-year, 700-crore deal with Reliance Industries and USA based global sports and media business firm IMG. The deal offered IMG-Reliance exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, franchising, and rights to create a new football league.

The first rumors started to speculate about an Indian Premier League-esque football league in India during a conflict between the I-League clubs and AIFF. Rumors built were that IMG-Reliance has both planned a league structure similar to that of Major League Soccer (in USA) and the India Premier League (T20 cricket league in India).

April 2011: A glimpse of this league was officially launched when the IFA (Indian Football Association, West Bengal) launched the Bengal Premier League idea with the first season scheduled for 2012. Speculating rumors suggested that the league will include the likes of FIFA World Cup 2006 winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, and other greats of game such as Robbie Fowler, Hernán Crespo, and Robert Pirès.

February 2012: An official statement was made announcing the league would be postponed to an undecided date before finally disbanding officially in 2013 due to financial reasons.

In 2012 itself: Despite the failure of the Bengal Premier League, the AIFF sanctioned IMG-Reliance to start an Indian Premier League style league, but including all of India. This was strongly opposed by the owners of various I-League clubs. Later, the owners formed an organization known as the Indian Professional Football Clubs’ Association and stated that they wouldn’t allow loaning out their players to IMG-Reliance for the league and go against signing any players already signed by IMG-Reliance. However, in August 2013, it was reported that IMG-Reliance had already signed the required amount of Indian players needed.

21st October 2013: The Indian Super League was officially launched by IMG-Reliance, Start Sports and the AIFF. The league would feature eight franchise teams from all around India from Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune. It would run from October to December, with a finals series determining the champion. The top four teams at the end of the season will qualify for the finals series. The semi-finals will be played in a two-legged format with the winners moving onto the one-legged final.

With a mission to revolutionise the sport, the Indian Super League is positioned as a high-quality and dynamic league that will elevate Indian football to an international level. Though FIFA president Sepp Blatter called India a “sleeping giant” during a visit here in 2007, the national team, which is looking for a new manager after Wim Koevermans signaled his departure this week, is 158th in the FIFA rankings. Indian football’s heyday was the 1950s and 60s, when India came fourth at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and won two Asian Games. While the inaugural season will have a novelty factor and has all the ingredients to be a commercial success, critics believe it will be the quality and intensity of play that will be crucial in sustaining the appeal. With high-profile names, Bollywood stars, cricketing greats and a slick marketing campaign, India’s new football league is gunning to become the next big thing in sport. Some say the tournament cannot hope to gain traction in a cricket-obsessed country whose sporting authorities have long failed to cultivate passion for the “beautiful game”. Accepting all the good things, and all the good adjectives that were used to describe the passion and emotions that runs across every Indian’s heart for cricket, but what makes this sport so, so great? The fact is that in a poor country like ours where the means of joy for the ‘Aam Aadmi’ (common man) are so restricted; this sport gives supreme joy to a billion people! In India, cricket has always been a language that has been understood by the common man more than listening to political rhetorics. It has been that magic solution that unites them and our filthy rich elites more than our innumerable religious doctrines. Owners and organizers are eyeing India’s 1.25 billion population, especially its rising middle class and huge numbers of youth, for a windfall in the long term. Not only are they hoping crowds will flock to stadiums, but also buy merchandise and lure more sponsors.

The Indian Super League promises to be a cracker, at the very least. As the curious eyes of the football world gaze upon India – waiting eagerly to witness first-hand the next step in India’s footballing journey, the Indian Super League will provide a foundation for the overall development of football in India, and set new standards of sports administration, governance and marketing in the country. There’s a very famous saying in India: “Jo Dikhta Hai, Vahi Bikta Hai.” India’s a country where media plays a very influential and crucial role in every event. And rightly so, because people here are gullible. That’s what they’re used to! The promotions of the league were top-notch. There are some definite take-aways from the Indian Super League such as the stadiums in the host cities will improve and there will be some glamour coming in to the game which may draw crowds. On shouldn’t expect the standard of the game to improve drastically, but the omens are good for the long run. It would have helped the cause of Indian football if the AIFF had been proactive and decided to see what’s wrong with the I-League before it reached a point so low, but this new league might just be the catalyst.

There will be lots of glamour and entertainment on display during the ISL and Sunday’s opening ceremony in Kolkata. Going beyond Bollywood music, 8 football teams and the Indian Super League opening ceremony will be represented by eight types of ‘desi’ rhythms at the gala opening ceremony on Sunday. The ceremony will come to a close amidst fireworks accompanied by special rendition of the league anthem by Bollywood’s eminent musician Salim Merchant. They have a fight on their hands for eyeballs; India is a country which already has franchise-based leagues in cricket, field hockey, and kabaddi (recently) among others. More importantly, Indian Super League will have to compete with European league matches that are beamed live across the country on satellite channels.

They say cricket is not a game; it’s a religion. Let’s rejoice the dawn of a new one: it’s time to play some football.

Aulakh Balbir

Balbir is a second-year student of M.A. (Hons.) Public Policy at the University of Mumbai. Currently, he works as an Associate at the State Election Commission, Maharashtra, the Constitutional Body responsible for conduct urban and rural local body elections in the state.