After weeks of unprecedented promotional blitzkrieg generating an initial awareness about football in a cricket-dominated country, the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL) begins Sunday with a potential of awakening a ‘sleeping giant’ from its long slumber.
The competition’s aim is to help world’s most popular sport grow, with a heavy dose of glamour quotient, in the world’s second-most populous country, having a population of 1.2 billion but languishing at the 158th spot in FIFA rankings.
Football in the subcontinent is substantially insignificant when compared to the beloved game of cricket. But while the European leagues, particularly the English Premier League, enjoys considerable television viewership, the domestic league barely raises any voice.
The new league, with a rich cast of celebrity owners from cricket to Bollywood, renowned foreign managers, several high-profile players and aggressive promotion and branding, is aiming to change that.
The pattern of the tournament is heavily borrowed from the immensely popular and profitable Indian Premier League (IPL) in cricket, ISL will feature eight franchise teams based across the country.
Italian World Cup winners Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi, Spain’s Joan Capdevila and Luis Garcia, and French stars David Trezeguet and Robert Pires are some of the star attractions in the cash-rich tournament.
Their association with the league has garnered fair share of attention in the international press too.
The tournament will be played in a round-robin format with the top four sides to qualify for the semi-finals. It will be played over two legs, with the winners advancing to a one-leg final. There will be no promotion or relegation.
Atletico de Kolkata take on Mumbai City FC Oct 12 at the Salt Lake stadium in the first match of the tournament in the nation’s football cradle – Kolkata.
In the opening match, the Kolkata franchisee, with Sourav Ganguly and 2013-14 Spanish La Liga winners Atletico Madrid as part of a consortium of owners, will flaunt former Spain international and Liverpool star Luis Garcia as their ‘marquee’ player.
Ex-Sweden and Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg and French stalwart Nicolas Anelka bolster their opponent’s – the Mumbai franchisee, co-owned by movie star Ranbir Kapoor.
The other franchises are also not too far behind in attracting big names.
Chennai-based Chennaiyin FC, co-owned by Abhishek Bachchan and Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni have hired Marco Materazzi as coach, Brazilian Elano as the ‘icon’ player and former Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre.
Delhi franchisee Delhi Dynamos, owned by cable TV company DEN Networks, managed to bag Juventus and Italian legend Del Piero.
Goan team named FC Goa is coached by Brazilian virtuoso Zico and has Frenchman Robert Pires to spearhead their attacking line.
Kerala Blasters, the southern franchisee, with cricketing master Sachin Tendulkar as the part-owner, signed up former England goalkeeper David James in a playing-cum-coaching role.
Ex-Spain international Capdevila will represent actor John Abraham-backed NorthEast United FC while FC Pune City has French World cup winner David Trezeguet and Romanian Adrian Mutu in their ranks.
The Oct 12-Dec 20 tournament’s – bankrolled by Reliance Industries, Star India and sports management group IMG – primary focus is on developing young talent to try and make an impact on the world stage.
It remains to be seen whether all the hoopla surrounding it assumes game-changing proportions or becomes just another false dawn for the sport in the country.