Oder acchey Mendoz, amader acchhey Sandoz. (They have Mendoz, we have Sandoz). The references to Chennaiyin FC’s footballer John Mendoza and to the pharmaceutical company came from an Atlético de Kolkata supporter seated right behind me; the wordplay, the wit and the self-mocking dig at the Bengali’s medical vagaries were for me the highlight of the match.
There was much else to savour, even in a goalless draw; the shimmies and turns of the Latino players, for example, or the eccentricity of Ethiopian forward Fikru Teferra Lemessa. For anyone nodding off halfway through the match on 14 November in Kolkata, there was the entertainment provided by the floodlight failure and, if nothing else caught the eye, there were the frequent shots on the giant screens of the evening’s two biggest stars in attendance, actors Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone.
The occasional bursts of humour, though, did more than merely amuse; they offered evidence of a hitherto hidden depth to the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). The ISL has seemed to focus on the frivolities, and as little as possible on the football. The pre-tournament promos featured cricketers and other celebrities, anyone but footballers; the match-time formalities typically involve large doses of the league’s chairperson, Nita Ambani, and the TV broadcast spends a bit too much time on her and on whichever Bollywood star is in attendance at the ground. At the match I watched, the loudest cheers were reserved for local cricket hero Sourav Ganguly and former Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar, who had spent a season with the Indian Premier League (IPL) team Kolkata Knight Riders (actually, the loudest cheer was when the floodlights came back).
The ATK (as Atlético are known) fan sitting behind me, and his friends who made up the rest of the row of seats, bore all this with a patient shrug and a quip or three. When the lights went out, for example, our man drew a parallel with the waning political fortunes of local sports minister Madan Mitra, currently under fire in the Saradha chit-fund scam. They stuffed themselves with the muri (puffed rice) sold in paper cones, and drank dozens of the tiny paper cups of tea, grumbling all the way about the prices. They had a point— ₹ 10 for 50ml of lukewarm dishwater is a tad excessive for any budget. They avoided joining in the “ATK!" chants that were drummed up from time to time by the emcee but cheered and moaned with genuine feeling at the hits and misses.
So why are these fans so important? It’s because if football is to have any hope of remaining a mass spectator sport, and for football reasons rather than for the trappings that accompany it, it is these fans—common, everyday middle-class folk—who will sustain it. The likes of you and I will flit in and out, watching only when Delhi Dynamos’ Alessandro Del Piero plays or FC Goa coach Zico’s in town or, more likely, when a freebie ticket comes our way. The pulling power of the Ambanis, who own the league, will ensure the celebrity quotient stays high, and that social media maintains a steady buzz. The league will still need a soul; the gang sitting behind me was the soul.
You can look at the ISL in many ways. You can argue that the tournament, like cricket’s IPL, is a TV-driven event with its revenue models more or less insulated from bums on seats. You can also argue that the new-age spectators—especially the families, of whom there were large numbers at Salt Lake Stadium that evening—aren’t all “tourists". You can argue, too, that reported attendance figures place the ISL ninth among all global outdoor sports leagues (and above the Italian Serie A league). Or you could simply argue that in India filling stadiums is never a problem. Build it and they will come.
All of this is missing the point slightly; the real potential of Indian football lies in the middle classes, in the fans who take that overcrowded bus to the stadium and spend a good part of their weekly entertainment budget on that one match. The game belongs to them.
In Kolkata, especially, the time is just right for a change, perhaps even a revolution, given the city’s familiarity with it. Kolkata’s “Big Three" clubs are in disarray. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have been scarred by their proximity to the Saradha scam, with at least one top official of each club behind bars and the accounts of both frozen by the Enforcement Directorate. The third big club, Mohammedan Sporting, denied reports of its own demise but is clearly struggling to stay afloat. The ISL promises professionalism, in the form of a slick, well-run, well-marketed operation; the short-term cost is a manufactured product.
Will the public bite? Will the ISL gain the critical mass that will take it from the status of a private, if popular, league to something more credible, broad-based and ultimately with a wider purpose? The league has ambitious targets, including a vision of India qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. It is not impossible but will require a clear plan of action, effective implementation of that plan, and very deep pockets. The ISL scores on the last count; how it converts the other two shots could determine its fate.
Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.