Marco Materazzi, centre, poses with his fans on arrival in Bangalore. The Italian World Cup winner will manage Chennaiyin FC in the Indian Super League. Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP
The Indian Super League will start on Sunday with typical Indian largesse, flinging together the social and celebrity elites and attempting to tap into the passion for the beautiful game in pockets across the nation. The states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Goa and Kerala have had various versions of semi-professional football for decades, and everything that came with them: passion, partisanship, rowdy fans, the occasional lathi charge. But until this brainchild of the All India Football Federation and the sponsors the Reliance Group, the current I-League format remains a disparate collection of mini-leagues.
And yet still, young boys zipping about on patches of dry grass and industrial estates try to imitate their heroes – Messi, Rooney, Neymar and Ronaldo – plugging away at this second-tier sport in a country enslaved by cricket’s heavenly bails. There is a historic precedent; in the 1950s and 60s India came fourth at the 1956 Olympics and won two Asian Games gold medals. But since then domestic football has stagnated, stuck with several problems such as how to raise its profile and how to translate the enthusiasm for watching football into something practical.
So where does the ISL fit in? The idea, similar to the North American Soccer League and MLS in the 70s and 90s, Japan’s J-League in the 90s and Australia’s A-League in the 00s, is to get mature international players to pass on their skills, experience and attitude to a domestic pool of talent that is ready to take the next leap through a spritzed-up, eight-team national league.
The clubs’ “marquee signings” read like a who’s who of football, but from a decade ago; players include Alessandro del Piero (Delhi), Joan Capdevila (North East), Robert Pires (FC Goa), Fredrik Ljungberg (Mumbai City FC), Luis García (Atlético de Kolkata), David Trezeguet (FC Pune City) and Nicholas Anelka (Mumbai). Managers include Zico (Goa), Marco Materazzi (Chennaiyin FC) and Peter Reid (Mumbai). Yes, Peter Reid.
Speaking to the Guardian from Mumbai, Ljunberg says: “There’s great excitement here, it reminds me a little of when I went to America - Seattle didn’t exist as a club before I went so we tried to tap into the passion for the game in the north-west and they can get 40,000–50,000 per game now.
“That was a fascinating part of my career, which is why I’m also here in India, there are so many young players and such an opportunity to be part of the beginnings of something great.”
And certainly the prospects are there for taking the game seriously, after a long period of indifference. As Baljit Rihal, a UK football agent and founder of The Asian Football Awards, says: “The All India Football Federation has slowly woken up to the massive potential that football holds for India. The Bollywood style launch was a success – they have high-profile co-owners and big names in football. It’s just a question of the tournament running according to plan.”
Of course the creation of a cash-rich, bombastic league in a country whose national team is embroiled in crisis, even facing a funding controversy before the current Asian Games in South Korea, may find sympathy among Premier League fans. But India’s problems stem as much from lack of finance as a dearth of fresh talent. Its most prominent cricketers stare down on mere mortals from gigantic billboards while many Indians would struggle to name their football captain, Sunil Chhetri.
Rihal, who helped broker the former Newcastle and Cardiff striker Michael Chopra’s inclusion in the ISL draft, believes there is scope for European clubs to search for talent in the subcontinent. “I would like to see more English Premier League clubs investing in Indian football. The likes of Atlético Madrid, Fiorentina and Feyenoord have already got a piece of the pie – I hope EPL clubs get more involved as it makes commercial sense especially given the huge British Asian diaspora.”
Ljungberg also believes there is plenty of promise, just not enough places to channel it. “Here there are not as many pitches and training grounds, so while I’m looking forward to playing for Mumbai City I’m keen to go and train with some kids as well. I feel I have big responsibility here to interact with the people who have made me so welcome.”
Daniel Glynn, of Ad Hoc Films, is the producer and director of Sleeping Giant – a documentary, just released, on the journey two 14-year-old Indian boys, Shaun and Hussain, take after winning a contest in Mumbai to train with QPR for a couple of months – and has seen the culture difference first hand.
He says: “Football in India was in a pretty woeful state when our cameras began rolling and by the looks of its continuing poor standing in the Fifa international rankings, it still is. We heard from some pretty heavyweight pundits – AIFF officials, journalists, coaches and business people – all of whom admit to there being something very wrong from the top down in terms of the organisation and the infrastructure that is in place.”
This is hard to deny, the regional leagues are still semi-professional, even among the big teams; training facilities are somewhere between woeful and non-existent and the overwhelming majority of boys who play football do so in bare feet. The story of India leaving the 1950 World Cup in Brazil as they wanted to play without boots is one commonly wheeled out, though it is disputed whether this was the principal reason or a coincidence. But as someone who personally had his namby-pamby western-raised feet cut to ribbons so as not to look soft to the street boys in his grandfather’s village, I can also attest to the fact they play with a very heavy leather ball. Yet still the passion burns fierce, boots or not.
As Glynn says: “Of course there is passion, particularly among the youth. But grassroots passion alone will not give India its first big footballing star or solve the problems in Indian football. If you are a good cricketer in India, it is more than likely you will be discovered as the system is set up for cricket and to unearth talent from all social strata. When it comes to football that is not really the case.”
Ljungberg agrees. “There’s people playing everywhere in the street – it’s clear there’s a genuine passion for football here, but the infrastructure needs some help. Which is where we come in, to try to help kids learn more of the technical side and the mentality to be successful.
“The future of Indian football is all about how you train the youth, so while the ISL is great, the knock-down effect is what’s important to the future of the game. But it’s moving in the right direction.”
So the razzmatazz of a new league leaves some ambivalent and it is easy to be sniffy as a football fan in a country where the game is so established, but the hope is there will be money pumped into the game, more training facilities and a raising of ambition and awareness. There also comes that word universally loathed: the franchise. But then is Kerala Blasters any more eccentric a name than the Chennai Super Kings of the IPL?
Will the minority of lairy yet loyal fans, 100,000 of whom can fill the cavernous Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata when the two giants of that city, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, play, suddenly feel any affinity to the shiny new Atlético de Kolkata? Will boys suddenly swap googlies and doosras for rabonas and panenkas?
Arunava Chaudhuri, CEO of Mumbai City FC, says people should not get too hung up on the idea of franchises or the glitz. “We need this big launch as we need to energise the people who already like the sport. Sure we have big names and Bollywood stars and cricket legends to begin with but the real effect is going to be seen in three to five years’ time at the grassroots level.
“We at Mumbai have a programme where we hope to train around 250 youth coaches, who in turn will coach six-to-12- year-olds. It’s very important that there is a grassroots movement as the clubs may all launch with some star names but ultimately will be looking to recruit and nurture domestic talent in the long run.”
Who knows, and a healthy level of scepticism is inevitable, but can India finally go forward to its past, when it cared about football almost as much as it did cricket? Perhaps the two boys, now 17, from Sleeping Giant provide the best illustration of the present: Shaun is playing semi-professionally in the I-League and Hussain has just had an offer; and both are doing their college exams, Hussain hopes to become an engineer. Passionate hobby rather than professional calling remains the sport’s status.
But the hope is that, whatever entertainment the ISL provides this autumn, the long-term benefits will drip down and inspire those boys nutmegging their way around the back streets of Mumbai, the parks of Kochi, the beaches of Panaji and the alleys of Kolkata, that there might just be more to life than cricket.
• The ISL kicks off on 12 October with Atlético de Kolkata v Mumbai City FC.
Apparently, the Calcutta-Bombay match is sold out. All 120,000 seats.