It's time to take a fresh leap

Atletico de Kolkata face Mumbai City FC in the opening encounter today

It's time to take a fresh leap

It was December 9, 2010. Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister of India, the acronym ISIS didn't exist and the Indian cricket team were 114 days away from being world champions for a second time. The Arab Spring would begin in nine days but we weren't to know that yet.

It was on that Thursday when the All India Football Federation (AIFF), inside one of their boardrooms in New Delhi, signed a 15-year deal with IMG and Reliance (IMG-R) worth Rs 700 crores.

The intention of the deal was very clear - an IPL-style revolution for the sport. They tried to launch a franchise-based league in 2012, exclusive to West Bengal, but that was binned due to financial reasons.

It has taken the AIFF and the numerous stakeholders almost four years to move from the boardrooms in New Delhi to the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, where the inaugural match of the Indian Super League (ISL) between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC will be played on Sunday.

On the face of it, the ISL has all the raw ingredients for a box-office hit.
The teams are either bankrolled by Bollywood stars or by the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Saurav Ganguly and Virat Kohli, four people who are more than capable of selling a product to a salesman.

While the League has failed in its endeavour to attract present footballing heavyweights, it does have in its ranks, a couple of players who were rather good at playing the sport in their pomp. Perhaps, the biggest fish in that relatively small pond is Alessandro Del Piero, whose CV could as well be a bottomless well.

Apart from the Juventus legend, there is Robert Pires, an Arsenal great. Joining him in the top bracket is ex-Liverpool player Luis Garcia and serial winners Marco Materazzi and Nicolas Anelka. Former Brazil midfielder Elano Blumer and another Arsenal giant, Fredrik Ljungberg, complete the line up of the big-hitting foreign imports.

While most of the above-mentioned players will raise the profile of football in India, one cannot argue against the idea of this also being an exercise in bloating their bank statements. But if the golden oldies do live up to their billing, the naysayers will be quick to turnaround and jump on the bandwagon.

The stakeholders should also be careful as to what their immediate goals are.
At the official inauguration of the tournament last week, Star India's COO, Sanjay Gupta, said: "This (referring to the ISL) is the birth of a footballing nation."

Such grandiose statements are rather out of place and must be left behind in the drafts folder in one's inbox because speeches win you elections. They do not help you reinvent the wheel.

Indian football, itself, has been in a similar position before. The National Football League, which began in 1996, was rechristened and sold as the I-League in 2007 in an effort to glorify the existing structure. That is yet to happen.

One millstone which the organisers can work towards is building interest aimed at bringing in the crowds at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup.

While IMG-R are hardly pioneers of this model, history tells us that this isn't an automatic recipe for cracking the footballing omerta.

They just need to look at the original North American Soccer League (1968-1984). The structure played a huge role in getting the US, both the public as well as the mainstream media, to accept 'soccer' as a sport.

It did take some time to warm up but once the New York Cosmos (1970-85) took the likes of Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer to the Big Apple, it was only a matter of time before the hipsters started following soccer. Television stations, helped further by the the arrivals of Johann Cruyff, George Best and Carlos Alberto, started showing matches live.

Ad spots were sold out. The US thought it had conquered soccer through simple economics aided by the presence of aging superstars.

But three decades later, football is still viewed as a second sport there.
India, and IMG-R, will do well to replicate NASL's initial successes.

Will they be able to pull it off? While it's difficult to predict what will happen in the madhouse world of Indian football, a two-month window leaves them with a small margin for error.

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