In what promises to be a heady mix of sport and Bollywood glamour, India today launches its own version of Premier League football.
The Indian Super League only has eight teams, and the fixtures will be confined to the next 10 weeks, but the tournament is already expected to kick-start a football revolution in a country with an estimated 500 million fans starved of any home-grown action.
Some of the leading names from Indian sport, entertainment and business have joined forces to buy the teams. Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar is co-owner of the Kerala Blasters, where former England goalkeeper David James is player manager, while his former captain Sourav Ganguly is co-owner of Atletico de Kolkata – who are affiliated to Atletico Madrid – while other teams are co-owned by leading Bollywood actors.
Clubs have recruited high-profile players in the twilight years of their careers who are being paid astronomically well for 10 weeks’ work. Alessandro del Piero is reported to be the highest earner at £1 million with others – among them Freddie Ljungberg, Marco Materazzi, Nicolas Anelka and Joan Capdevila – receiving between £700,000 to £800,000.
Overall, 56 foreign players, including five World Cup winners and a number of former Arsenal players, will take part alongside 112 Indian players with each team costing around £5m per season.
Kushal Das, general secretary of the All India Football Federation, said: “Football in this country has never been so popular but it’s all about the Premier League, La Liga and the Champions League. As far as domestic football and the national team is concerned, things are not very good.
“Our focus is to ensure that the ISL benefits the Indian game. It is not simply about throwing money at the problem, we have to develop the game from the bottom up. That is one of our main priorities.
“I accept that a lot of foreign players who are coming towards the end of their careers are being paid very well, but we also have to be realistic. We will not be able to get the current top players.
“We are looking at the example of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and leagues in Australia and Japan that had a similar approach. ”
Until now, India’s foray into football has been both painful and farcical. Fifa officials were so moved at witnessing the pain Indian players suffered when they played barefooted against booted opponents in the 1948 Olympics, they introduced Law Four which states all players must use footwear on the pitch.
The move incensed Indian football authorities, who protested their players only knew how to play barefoot since being introduced to the game by British soldiers in the 1800s and they refused to accept an invitation to participate in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
Four years later, India backtracked on the boot issue and were invited to take part in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. However, they were ruled out because the entry form was returned after the submission date.
Currently 158th in the Fifa rankings, the country’s national team is considered a laughing stock. But all Premier League games are shown live in India and it is the country’s increasingly wealthy middle class who are the biggest followers. According to one Indian television industry report, last year England’s top flight reached 155m TV viewers. Liverpool and Manchester United have set up academies in India while the Premier League has signed a partnership agreement with the ISL to provide advice and expertise.
As part of the ISL rules, each club will have to spend £250,000 a year on grassroots development and establish an academy within three years. New playing surfaces are being laid and stadiums revamped. A long-term grassroots programme will also be implemented with the aim of getting 5m children actively playing organised football by 2018.
Das added: “Both the ISL and the Under-17s World Cup will be real game-changers for Indian football. Our young players will learn a tremendous amount. Our football facilities are also being improved. The ISL is a massive opportunity for the game to grow, football in India has never had so much exposure.”
The ISL launch comes in the middle of an Indian gold rush as sports and media bodies look to exploit the huge appetite for sport.
But with virtually no meaningful system of coaching or decent facilities for players at all levels, the ISL stands accused of being an expensive experiment that is cashing in on the growing popularity of football in India but does not benefit the game in the long run.
According to sources, some high-profile players from Europe threatened to return home soon after arriving in India because of the lack of adequate training facilities. One friendly game was delayed because of cow dung on the field.
London-based businessman Channa Singh Gill, who runs a number of football development programmes in India said: “Spending millions of pounds on a super league is not the answer. The grass roots of Indian football is in a pathetic state.
“You need good coaches and facilities for young players, that’s how you develop the game, not by paying huge amounts of money to ex-superstars.”
Guide to the teams
Atletico de Kolkata
A 110, 000 crowd due at today’s first game with Mumbai. Owners include ex-India captain Sourav Ganguly, plus investment from Atletico Madrid, hence the name. Players include ex-Liverpool Luis Garcia.
Owned by India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan. Players include Elano, ex-Manchester City, and Mikael Silvestre, ex-Arsenal.
Owned by India’s largest cable TV company. Players include Alessandro del Piero. Team has an agreement with Feyenoord.
Part-owned by cricketer Virat Kohli. Team managed by Brazilian Zico and players include former Arsenal winger Robert Pires.
Owned by “Master Blaster” Sachin Tendulkar, hence team name. David James is player/ head coach.
Head coach, Peter Reid, assisted by player/coach Nicolas Anelka. Players include Freddie Ljungberg.
From Guwahati in Assam. Players include Spaniard Joan Capdevila.
Owned by Bollywood’s Salman Khan with Fiorentina having a 15 per cent stake. Players include France’s David Trezeguet and Adrian Mutu, ex-Chelsea, who has been banned for taking drugs.