Not many are sure how much the Indian Super League will transform the pock-marked face of India's national football, but if the game is looking for some quality inspiration and some much-needed Television Rating Points, the IPL-styled league is getting some good advertisement. Glamour and celebrity factors don't translate into goals but if the ISL is looking for a solid kickstart, India's top cricketers have given it a terrific image. The league starts on Sunday, October 12. (Read: Dhoni Wants Football Revolution in India With ISL)
Indian football is at its lowest ebb. It has made all the wrong news in recent weeks. The government initially refused to bear the cost of the team for the Asian Games. Expectedly, India failed to cross the league stage at Incheon. On Monday, India lost to Palestine in a friendly and the national coach Wim Koevermans, a former Dutch international, ended his football honeymoon with a country which is currently ranked 158. India continue to slip in the rankings and could very soon touch its worst rating - 169.
Football in India is restricted to the club teams. Still struggling to adopt professionalism, Indian football, till recently, was dominated by the Big Three of Kolkata - Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. As new teams like Bengaluru FC and Pune FC, with better method and attitude, emerge, Kolkata teams are being found out. Bagan and East Bengal even have their bank accounts frozen after their officials were caught for involvement in chit fund scams.
Courtesy Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and Sourav Ganguly, football is making the headlines again. Football surely needs glamour but unlike cricket, played in pristine conditions where light, soil and air have to in perfect measure, soccer in India is played in horrible conditions like slushy paddy fields. Of course, playing conditions have improved over the years, but they are far from world standards.
Dhoni began his life as a goalkeeper. At school level, most boys play football. That's the easiest to play because all you need is a No. 5 football and some space. Dhoni was lucky to take up cricket as a career. Had he played football, Dhoni would perhaps have ended up the most famous goalkeeper in the I-League with a job in a nationalized bank or Indian Railways (Dhoni was a Train Ticket Examiner) or the Food Corporation of India and a couple of crore in a savings bank in Ranchi. Cricket has given him a place in Forbes and Dhoni is among the highest-paid sporting stars in the world.
The Indian cricket captain, who has won all kinds of World Cups, says it's payback time to a sport he loves and is passionate about. There is always a commercial angle to buying stakes in a team, but Dhoni says it's not about money. "I am not thinking about money. I wanted to associate myself with football and that's why I got into this. The way forward will be to develop football," Dhoni said at a function in Chennai on Monday.
Let's face facts. Shah Rukh Khan doesn't run Kolkata Knight Riders for charity. The Burmans, who own Dabur, don't run Kings XI Punjab for just love of cricket. Deccan Chargers sold off their team because it was becoming a financial burden. So why have busy current cricketers like Dhoni, Kohli, Tendulkar and Ganguly bought stakes in a football teams that look half-cooked and perhaps without design?
The ISL offers Rs 15 crore in prize money with winners getting Rs 8 crore. The losing finalist will walk home with a purse of Rs 4 crore while the two other semifinalists who miss out on a place in the final will have to settle for Rs 1.5 crore each. The IPL, which inspired the ISL, has Rs 35 crore in prize money, with the winners getting richer by Rs 15 crore.
Ironically, the FIFA and Asian Football Confederation recognized I-League, the national league of the country run by the All India Football Federation, has a purse of Rs 70 lakh for the winners. Even the winners of the recently concluded Kabaddi League got a crore!
While most cricketers and celebrities associated with ISL are talking about "promotion" and "development", the game can only be developed by the national federation and should start at the grassroots. It is not known how much money will be ploughed back into the national system by the event organisers, IMG-Reliance. And, Dhoni and Kohli will be too busy with a packed international cricket calendar ahead. Ganguly will be equally busy commentating and doing his TV shows and Tendulkar's diary is certainly choc-a-bloc.
The ISL has been laced with 'retired' or 'almost retired' foreign stars. Every team has marquee players but some of the names sent even seasoned football scribes diving into Google to search for career details. Yes, Zico is famous, Anelka is well known and Del Piero is as well heard as a Cristiano Ronaldo, but for them, ISL will be about making some quick money. Who cares about India's FIFA ranking.