The Indian Super League (ISL) has just kicked off in India with a great optimism that it will transform Indian soccer and the “sleeping giants” will wake up and be a formidable soccer power in next 10-15 years. Yes, it has attracted lots of attention in the recent past – good money flowing in, a large number of “star” world cuppers will be in action, lot of media hype surrounding the event, Bollywood and Sports heroes in the fray, big advertisements – all the ingredients for a masala dish are out and are being mixed in true Indian fashion.
As I welcome a sudden energy surrounding Indian football, my question is whether ISL the saviour or the conqueror ? When I mention the word ‘conqueror’, it automatically implies that there will be a victor AND there will be ‘death’ of someone. Also, when I use the word ‘saviour’, it means saving or healing an existing disease AND that does not imply death of anyone. Of course, I will prefer ‘saviour’ any day! But based on the events that led to the build up of the event, I have a feeling that ISL is acting as the conqueror rather than a saviour!
We always talk of “inclusive” growth – but in this case, we do not see that happen. Irrespective of the quality of Indian football, over 100+ years, we had Indian football clubs like East Bengal, Mohan Bagan, Salgaoncar, Dempo, etc etc who have been serving Indian football. Yes, the quality was poor – but that was not just the problem of the clubs, but the problem of India as a nation. Hence, if we have to improve the quality and make the “sleeping giant” wake, it has to be started using the same clubs where the footballers play for the entire year. But what do we see here ?
We suddenly have a new tournament with a total NEW set of teams and management, ignoring the current structure and totally ignoring the current set of clubs. It’s like the equivalent of the cricket Packer Series – only difference is that this is allowed by the India football federation, AIFF! If the same model was implemented to improve the i-League using the existing clubs, definitely this would have improved Indian football by leaps and bounds. Nowhere in the world we have seen improvement of football by ignoring current set of clubs – even in Japan, the existing J-League was “enhanced” when Zico and other international players went there to play and boost Japanese football and not creating new football teams, new tournaments, etc. Can we imagine that to improve say cricket in Netherlands, all current teams/clubs are ignored and a new tournament comes in with new teams ? Or to improve Indian cricket standards in test matches, have totally new teams, new tournament and ignore the Ranji Trophy along with all the current state teams ?
The message of ISL has been “I am rich, I have money, ‘poor’ people will start licking my shoes; so I don’t care about others – but lets make a tournament for 3 months and lets have some fun” … will this really improve football ? If the answer is “yes”, then out of 12 months, we play a tournament for 3 months with a set of players, teams, coaches and then for the rest 9 months, the same players goes back to the poor old infrastructure, back to the ‘poor’ old clubs, back with the poor quality coaches ? And in spite of that, our football will improve ? Come on !
If the ultimate design is “kill the old clubs, kill all tournaments like i-league, Federation Cup, make this the only tournament”, then probably Indian football will improve, but by that process it will lose many supporters who are loyal to the existing clubs. The best way to test the popularity of ISL is to have an ISL match in parallel to an East Bengal – Mohan Bagan match and see which match attracts more spectators. I think I can predict the answer ….
Let us not make this ISL the whims and fancies of some rich people, time pass for some bollywood stars and cricketers, who still does not address how the long term old clubs will improve their infrastructure, bring in more experienced coaches, bring in modern sports medicinal research into play. Yes, Indian football needs complete overhauling, but not in this fashion. If same money, stardom, infrastructure was used to enhance the main football tournament in India, the i-league, then definitely our soccer standards would have improved in the long run, without “killing” someone by design!