Home / Industry / ISL breathes new life into Indian football

Mumbai: There was no getting around it. In football-loving Goa, I searched in vain for a venue playing the battle of the Reds—Liverpool v. Manchester United—on the TV screens on Sunday, 14 December.

All were tuned in for the first leg of the Indian Super League (ISL) semifinal between FC Goa and Atletico de Kolkata, which clashed head-on (at 7 pm) with one of the biggest English Premier League matches on the calendar.

Granted, the Goa versus Kolkata clash wasn’t a patch on the quality on display at Old Trafford that evening. It ended in a meek goalless draw as both teams preferred to wait it out until the second leg. But the game seemed to have captivated Goa fans; given an option to follow a team, they chose local over global.

That may be the biggest victory for the ISL in its 10-week-long inaugural season that began on 12 October 2014. Launched by Reliance Industries Ltd, IMG Worldwide and Star India, the ISL, modelled on the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament was meant to foster local talent, feature international stars and make footfall a flagship sport in India.

The ISL is, perhaps, the latest in the IPL-ization of sport in India, a trend started in 2008 by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) through the city-based franchise of cricket teams in the tournament. Marquee names and big money spun around a Bollywood star cast; lots of circus, little sport. That’s a formula that has been applied to sell many sports leagues, with varying degrees of success. With a nod from the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which has struggled to take its own top division national league—the I-League—off the ground, IMG-Reliance launched the ISL as an attempt to put the spotlight on football: the world’s favourite sport, but diseased and floundering in India.

Despite being heavy on gimmicks, or perhaps because of it, the ISL achieved that end.

The inaugural season saw eight city franchises compete for the title. Marquee names like Italian World Cup winner Alessandro del Piero (Delhi Dynamos FC), former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg (Mumbai City FC), Spanish World Cup winner Luis Garcia (Atletico de Kolkata), and French World Cup winners Robert Pires (FC Goa) and David Trezeguet (FC Pune City) were used to draw in the football fans. Celebrity co-owners Sachin Tendulkar (Kerala Blasters FC), Sourav Ganguly (Atletico), John Abraham (NorthEast United FC), Ranbir Kapoor (Mumbai City FC) and Abhishek Bachchan (Chennaiyin FC) brought in the fringe audiences. All the teams played each other at home and away, with the top four qualifying for the semifinal.

The opening match between Atletico and Mumbai City saw a crowd of 65,000 at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata and reached out to 74.7 million via television, according to figures made available by the organizers to the media. In its first week, the ISL had garnered TV viewership of 170.6 million. Through the 10 weeks, the tournament attracted an average of 26,505 spectators in the stadium. Only Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League have average attendances higher than that.

“The ISL has shown that football is undoubtedly the second biggest sport in India," says Larsing Ming Sawyan, the co-owner of NorthEast United FC and AIFF vice-president. “It clearly shows that football is extremely popular among the youth. There is a huge population now in India that is looking beyond European football and at local leagues."

Leagues apart

The game, with the national I-League as its centrepiece, has been given a raw deal in India: fumbling matches played in front of sparse crowds and aired during television black holes.

The I-League has languished in ignorance and near-inertia for almost two decades. India’s first national league, known as the National Football League, was first established in 1996 and then re-branded as I-League in 2007. But in the 18 years of its existence it hasn’t been able to generate even a fraction of the buzz that the ISL did in its inaugural year.

“When I was first approached for the ISL, I tried to find out more about Indian football. I asked around if people knew about the I-League," said David James, former England goalkeeper and the player-coach of Kerala Blasters, on the eve of the final against Atletico in Mumbai. “But no one knew anything. And here we are, sitting before the first final of the Indian Super League and the world wants to know about it."

The numbers paint a sorry picture for the I-League. In the 2013-14 season, the League had an average attendance of 5,618. And this despite the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan attracting a crowd of 80,000. Champions Bengaluru FC, with a stadium that had a capacity of 8,000 and which ended up as one of the most followed clubs in the League, still averaged 4,000. The fact that matches were played in the afternoon, due to the lack of floodlights in most stadiums, and lacked quality TV coverage, had done the League no favours.

But the attendances weren’t the only numbers that expose the divide in the leagues.

After IMG-Reliance bought the marketing rights from the AIFF in a 700-crore deal in 2010, they pumped in money and conceptualized the ISL, ignoring the I-League.

“There was always an option to put this money in and revamp the I-League," said AIFF general secretary Kushal Das. “Which is why the ISL also took so long to take place. We considered all the options, but sometimes it is difficult to change things immediately in an existing league set-up. In the interest of the game, we thought that having the ISL now would benefit Indian football."

Shrinivas Dempo, one of the AIFF vice-presidents, co-owner of the FC Goa franchise and owner of the most successful club in the I-League, Dempo SC, explained: “It is just not the organizers, the franchises have pumped in a lot of money too. A lot of the established clubs in India lost out on participating in the ISL because they don’t have those kind of resources."

While the I-League winners pocket 70 lakh, the ISL winners received a cheque of 8 crore. To put the financial chasm in perspective, del Piero cost the ISL team Delhi Dynamos $1.8 million, about 11 crore. That is the average annual budget of I-League teams. The ISL franchises, meanwhile, spent close to 45 crore in the three months of ISL. Star TV having a 35% stake in the tournament also meant that the ISL was a superior television product.

Gaurav Modwel, chief executive officer of FC Pune City, believes that ISL proved that corporate entities could be made interested in Indian football, but I-League is not the way to go.

“Not really," he says, when asked whether he ever considered investing in an I-League team. “As a product, the way that the I-League works, the crowd it brings, the TV audience it attracts, is not something very exciting for us. There is no comparison between the two leagues. The ISL isn’t commercially viable at this time either; we need to work towards making it a commercial success. But in the first year, we needed to ensure the product was good, and those imperatives were met."

Shall the twain meet?

In its inaugural edition, the ISL has already eaten into the I-League season, pushing the start of the latter to 15 January. Even though a few people believe the two leagues should remain separate and complement each other, speculation is already rife that a few years down the line the ISL and I-League will merge to make one strong entity. As of now, the I-League is recognized by the Federation Internationale de Football Association (Fifa), football’s global governing body, as the national League of India and the ISL is seen by most as a “tournament".

“Eventually there has to be some sort of synergy," adds Dempo. “We all have to sit down and think how to bring all the clubs under one umbrella. Money is important, but so is history and legacy, and that’s what these clubs will bring. Also, having two different tournaments means the calendar is jam-packed. It’s tough on the players too."

Das believes that while the leagues may merge eventually, “It is not going to happen very soon."

“We need to give the ISL some time to settle down too," he added. “But there are a lot of things the I-League clubs can learn from ISL. The clubs should understand that for the home matches, if they ensure spectator comfort and promote matches a little bit better, be it on the radio or social media, people will come."

The success of the ISL, at least in the number of eyeballs grabbed, means that money is being pumped into Indian football, the investor confidence is on the rise and more importantly, it has given the players a platform.

“There are people who did not even know that there are 11 players on the field who are getting interested in Indian football," says India international Gouramangi Singh, who played for ISL finalists Chennaiyin FC. “It is a great stage for the Indian players, especially the younger lot. Earlier people only knew a few players like (Bhaichung) Bhutia or (Sunil) Chhetri, the media too was only interested in them. But the ISL has raised the profile of a lot of players."

It has been a world of change for the Indian talent on show, playing to packed stadiums and staying in the best of hotels. So much so that the I-League, which starts on 15 January 2015, now doesn’t seem enough.

Mehtab Hossain of East Bengal and Kerala Blasters was recently quoted saying: “After experiencing the facilities in the ISL and the response we receive each time we play, the fact that I will now have to return to the I-League no longer seems exciting. There is no motivation to play in those conditions."

Singh, 28, taking a more pragmatic view, says, “I don’t know how it is going to be to go back to the I-League. I hope that the interest generated by the ISL helps to get the crowds in, but even if they don’t, as a player I have to be professional. It’s my job to give my best."

The Indian players also benefited from the inputs by experienced foreign players and coaches. Atletico de Kolkata coach Antonio Lopez Habas said the performance of the Indian players had “gone up by 75-80%" through the 10 weeks. And it was fitting that an Indian, Mohammed Rafique, scored the goal deep in added time to hand Kolkata the title.

In terms of quality, the ISL is still far behind European football, which is passionately followed in India all year round. But Indian football veteran Bhutia, the country’s most recognized player (now retired), says it may still be the best played on Indian soil.

‘Too fast, too quick’

“The quality of football was much better than what we are used to here," said Bhutia, but with a rejoinder. “It does make a difference when you have a lot more established foreign players in the team. Six foreign players per team were allowed in the ISL, while it is restricted to four in the I-League."

Former England goalkeeper James believes the quality of the game, as well as that of the players will improve in the coming years.

“I think the marquee players will get younger," said 43-year-old James, who was the biggest name in the Kerala squad. Most marquee players in the ISL were retired footballers, like James. “A lot of players in Europe did not want to commit to something that had not been done before. But given the interest it has generated, it has become an attractive league to go to. It has been very competitive. The standard is still not there, as compared to Europe, but no one expected it to be in the first year."

Incidentally, that is the area the I-League scores over the ISL. The ISL teams, possibly due to travel fatigue, got increasingly cagier as the tournament progressed.

Garcia, who missed out on the final due to hamstring niggle, said the teams, scheduled to play every three days, did not even have enough time to recover, let alone be in the best shape for the matches. The ISL averaged 2.11 goals per game, as opposed to 2.47 in the I-League.

The ISL organizers are already talking about spacing out matches and extending the League to possibly become a three-month affair in the coming years. The competition, however, was never reduced to mere “exhibition" or mindless star gazing. Habas described ISL as “a rally race, too fast, too quick. We have to enjoy it."

For Indian football and its fans, it has been a joyride. It remains to be seen just how far it takes them.

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