India's richest man Mukesh Ambani has hailed the start of a glamorous new football league that organisers hope will trigger an explosion of interest in the game, long sidelined in favour of cricket.
Ambani, who is bankrolling the Indian Super League (ISL), said after Sunday's launch in the eastern city of Kolkata that he hoped it would boost the sport's popularity among young Indians. (Also read: Glitzy start to Indian Super League)
"What a fantastic start to ISL," he told reporters late Sunday after Atletico de Kolkata downed Mumbai City 3-0 in front of 70,000-odd fans following a glitzy opening ceremony.
"I hope that it will engage all the youth, we are looking to the youth of India to participate in football," said Ambani, chairman of the giant Reliance Industries group. (Match report: Atletico de Kolkata defeat Mumbai City FC in ISL opener)
Modelled on cricket's Indian Premier League, eight franchises are taking part in the 10-week long competition, televised by Rupert Murdoch's Star TV and backed by sports management giant IMG.
Cricketing greats such as Sachin Tendulkar and Bollywood A-listers are co-owners of the teams along with Spanish La Liga side Atletico Madrid.
The ISL has lured international veterans such as ex-Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, 37, France's Nicolas Anelka, 35, and 39-year-old Italian great Alessandro Del Piero who will front the teams.
Former French international Robert Pires said he was encouraged by the Indian fans who seemed to "love" their football.
"Incredible atmosphere," said Pires, who is playing for Goa, after watching the opener.
Experts say the ambitious ISL faces an uphill battle to convert India's cricket-mad 1.25 billion population and develop the small pockets of football passion that currently exist.
On a visit to India in 2007, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said India was the "sleeping giant" of world football.
But its national side languishes at 158 in the world rankings, which experts blame on sports authorities' failure to develop training grounds and young players.