Kolkata: Until now, Kolkata’s football clubs only played football and their fanatical supporters only watched from the edge of their seats. Every now and then, they would fail to deal with the adrenaline rush—on-ground skirmishes meant the big matches remained the preserve of only the most fervid supporters.

Even so, 75,000-80,000 would turn up for a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal derby. If the stakes were as high as a championship decider, the attendance would top 100,000, and sometimes things would simply go out of hand—a 2012 match had to be abandoned because the crowd went berserk.

That’s been pretty much the norm at Kolkata’s football grounds from the days Indians played barefoot.

But with the Indian Super League (ISL) soccer tournament—a property of Reliance Industries Ltd and sports management firm IMG—premiering on Sunday evening, the feudal order of football is under pressure to make way.

Not only has a new entertainment property come into being, the high-decibel razzmatazz with which the ISL was launched in Kolkata on Sunday promises to turn football in India into a great deal more than just a 90-minute show of scrappy footwork.

A few recycled overseas players such as Sweden’s Fredrik Ljungberg, France’s Nicolas Anelka and Italy’s Alessandro Del Piero may not immediately be able to raise the standard of football played in this country.

Their clubs might have to lean on movie stars such as Hrithik Roshan and Ranbir Kapoor and cricket legends such as Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly to build a support base for themselves, but Indian football is already witnessing new standards being introduced.

The facilities at Kolkata’s Yuva Bharati Krirangan—the biggest football stadium in India and one of the biggest in Asia by spectator capacity—have got a remarkable facelift at the cost of seating capacity. From 100,000, it has been brought down to 68,000, which has been described as right sizing in the current scenario.

The West Bengal government has spent extensively on the facility, says Rajesh Pande, principal secretary in the department of sports, though the synthetic turf hasn’t yet been replaced by a grass top. The state in any case had to prepare the stadium to host the under-17 World Championship to be held in 2017, but the ISL acted as the “immediate trigger".

The state stands to gain from such events, according to Pande. It will receive a fee of at least 12 lakh a match, three-four times the usual fee charged for other matches.

Sunday’s attendance of at least 60,000 at the first match between Atlético de Kolkata and Mumbai City lived up to the expectations of the co-owners of the home team. Though tens of thousands of tickets were given for free and many sold for half the price, Yuva Bharati Krirangan looked more like Eden Gardens hosting an Indian Premier League cricket match.

Atlético de Kolkata’s co-owner Utsav Parekh took great pride in bringing women in fancy clothes back to the football stadium—a rare sight indeed in the city—and many even came with children in their arms.

That’s the idea, says Sunanda Dhar, chief executive officer of the I-League—India’s primary football league run by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). “Copy-pasting the IPL model" is probably the best way to create new excitement in football, he says.

Football officials expect the ISL to bring in much-needed money into the sport, and key to it is changing the spectator profile, they say.

Until now, the vast majority of football fans in India have been people from the low-income group, says Subrata Dutta, vice-president of AIFF. Is it possible to get a car manufacturer interested to sponsor a football tournament if a large majority of spectators cannot afford even a bicycle? asks Dutta.

Incidentally, one of the main sponsors of the ISL’s first season is Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. The title sponsor is India’s leading two-wheeler maker Hero MotoCorp Ltd.

Ticket prices have been raised—the cheapest for the first match went for 100 after discount, as against 20-30 for a regular match—and that, according to one official, who didn’t want to be identified, was intended to work as an “entry barrier". From the look of the first day’s crowd, it worked.

But if football is being alienated from the mass, it is happening at a time when Kolkata’s iconic clubs such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal face an uncertain future.

Their bank accounts have been frozen by the Enforcement Directorate, the central agency that probes money laundering and foreign exchange violations, for receiving sponsorship from tainted companies, and it isn’t immediately clear how they are going to deal with this situation.

But they too expect to benefit from the ISL.

The likes of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will never lose relevance purely because of their dedicated fan following, according to Srinjoy Bose, Mohun Bagan’s assistant secretary.

Football always needed money and better infrastructure, he says, adding that AIFF should now look to convert the commercial interest generated by the ISL into better funding for other tournaments such as the I-League.

Sceptics, however, view the ISL as an experiment. There’s little doubt that it will bring money into the sport, but at what cost? they ask.

It is impossible to tell immediately if the ISL would have any long-term implication for the sport, says Santi Ranjan Dasgupta, East Bengal’s assistant secretary. IMG had secured for 15 years the commercial rights to the I-League as well, but over the past four years, it has had little success with the event, he says.

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