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Will the Indian Super League get India to take football seriously?

Monday, 14 April 2014 - 7:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

It's high time India took football seriously. The Indian Super League could be the beginning of the same, but not everything about it is rosy

A heady concoction of Bollywood heartthrobs, cricketing icons, European football expertise and corporate muscle power constitutes the make-up of the Indian Super League (ISL). The property, conceptualised by IMG-Reliance and backed by the All India Football Federation, and in which Star Sports also has a stake, is all set to glamourise and revolutionise Indian football for better or worse, more for the better in the short-term, and probably somewhat for the latter in the long-term.

Football for profit
In essence, the ISL’s arrival reiterates the triumph of the idea of sport as a commercial exercise that owes its existence in India to the success of the IPL, an endeavour that was also floated by IMG. In this model, the franchises are auctioned off to various bidders and so are the telecast rights, which brings big money into the coffers of the sports federation and its marketing partners, while the team owners have the opportunity to recover their investments through the medium of sponsorships, marketing initiatives, ticket sales, merchandising etc, and also get a share of the telecast and other media rights. This represents a complete breakaway from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) philosophy which underpinned the footballing involvement of corporates like Dempo, Salgaocar, Mahindras, SBT, ITI and HAL etc, in the past.

Not that football for profit is a bad idea as such as the economic activity that it generates will provide earnings and employment to a wide range of ‘players’ across various sectors like media, advertising, printing, suppliers, equipment manufacturers etc, in the economic spectrum, and action and excitement for Indians. Mind you, IMG-R floated this idea to recover its considerable investment of Rs 700 crore for which it bought the commercial rights of Indian football for a 15-year period from December 2010 onwards, and which it was unable to successfully market. But this will now be just a footnote to the main story, as the cause may be overshadowed by the effect and the several positive spinoffs that this project promises.

Positive spin-offs
For one, the infusion of superior technical expertise and management systems that investors like current La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid and other celebrity international managers will bring to the table, will provide a valuable learning curve for the Indian officials associated with such teams. Indian players, too, will benefit from more advanced training, tactics, recovery and support regimens that mega-budgets unseen in Indian football will bring in. Playing with a superior level of foreign professionals will also help our local lads to improve their game even though the iconic footballers that the franchises will hire may be past their prime (each franchise is expected to register a minimum 22 players for the two-month affair out of which 10 will be foreigners and five can be fielded in the playing XI). Besides, if the development work that the franchise are supposed to do actually translates into reality, it will do immense good to Indian football in the long-run.

The initial success of the ISL will depend on the icon players (big names like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Hernan Crespo, Dwight Yorke, Louis Saha etc, were initially dropped when the tournament was proposed earlier this season) who will line up for their respective squads. The bigger the names, the more hoopla will the ISL generate, and the more eager will crowds be to swell the turnstiles.
The crowds will be more or less guaranteed as there will be only seven home matches in each city as compared to the situation is Goa and Kolkata as of now which have four teams each in the I-League and Shillong, which will have three teams next season now that Royal Wahingdoh have qualified from the second division. This means that viewer fatigue in Goa, Kolkata (they have about 46 home matches each) and Shillong (where there will be about 36 home matches) will not be replicated at the IS centres.

The downside
That said, the whole opacity of the exercise as to how the respective bidders got the franchises has left a dark crowd hovering over the potential silver lining. While in the much-maligned IPL, the financial details of the bidders were at least revealed, there is no such announcement about the ISL franchise winners on this score as of now. And while it was reported that the organisers received “positive response” from 30 interested parties to its ‘Invitation to Bid’ tender notice which closed on March 27, this reporter's sources say there were only 11 bidders for eight franchises, the guys who lost out being Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan and GMR.

That Utsav Parekh, the co-owner of the Kolkata franchise, is the son-in-law of Praful Patel, AIFF president, and that Dattaraj Salgaocar, co-owner of the Goa franchise, is the brother-in-law of Mukesh Ambani who mainly owns the IMG-R combine, makes the ISL look like a replica of the murky IPL's genesis and another crony-capitalist exercise. That Sachin Tendulkar is intimately connected to Mumbai Indians and now finds a football home in ‘God’s own country’ is another interesting development.

How the ISL will be able to resolve its problems with the I-League clubs, who had banded together under the aegis of the Indian Professional Football Clubs Association to prevent the release of their players for the img-r league without getting any meaningful returns, is a matter of conjecture. The IPFCA clubs had refused to release their players for the aborted edition of the ISL which was planned earlier this year and had also refused to take the 40-odd contracted players to the IMG-R on loan for their I-League campaign. A few clubs like Mohammedan Sporting, Rangdajied United etc, however, broke ranks and recruited the IMG-R players that were available after the league was called off, in their bid to save relegation. As of now, it looks like some of the clubs may succumb to blandishments or pressure when the ISL comes up next season, but the likes of Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa, whose owners have been very vocal in their opposition to the ISL, will not play ball. And Shivanand Salgaocar, owner of the storied Salgaocar Sports Club too, for obvious reasons, considering that he recently moved the Bombay High Court against his brother Dattaraj for a separation of the family assets and businesses.

And finally, what effect will the ISL have on the fortunes of the national team who are still languishing at 145 in the latest FIFA rankings? National coach Wim Koevermans is none too pleased about the prospects of his wards playing under different coaches in the same season and the fatigue factor that will impair the national players who will have to bear an additional tournament workload in their seasonal commitments.

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