Peter Reid, Mumbai City’s English manager, right, watches his French striker Nicolas Anelka during training on Oct. 1.Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
In a country where Bollywood and cricket battle for the public’s attention, the world’s most popular sport has long been an afterthought.
India’s national soccer team languishes at No. 158 in the FIFA world rankings. The Blue Tigers, as they are known, have also failed to qualify for next year’s Asian Cup, the continent’s equivalent of the Euros or Copa America. And attendances hover around irrelevance. Mumbai FC, for instance, played its home games in nearby Pune and, last season, averaged a minuscule 321 fans, according to India’s national soccer federation.
No wonder, then, that FIFA president Sepp Blatter referred to India, the world’s second most populous country, as a “sleeping giant.” But could the arrival of the eight-team Indian Super League (ISL) awaken Indian soccer?
The ISL, co-promoted by IMG-Reliance and media giant Star India, is clearly thinking big: its vision is for India to “become a global football power and qualify for the 2026 World Cup.” Sunday’s opener between Atlético de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC in eastern India comes a little later than expected and the franchise in Bangalore didn’t materialize, but the wait is now over and some of the most recognizable names in soccer—and India—are aboard.
If the ISL, considerably snazzier than the domestic I-League, can do for soccer what the glitzy, star-studded Indian Premier League (IPL) does for cricket, then it will be considered a massive success. But there are already huge differences. The ISL’s cast of superstars, for instance, are all about a decade past their primes.
They include David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, David James, Nicolas Anelka and Chennaiyin FC’s player manager, Marco Materazzi. That bunch will share the pitch with Indian players and others over the next two months, a similar duration to the IPL.
Despite their ages, these players still make up the highest-profile collection of international soccer players to set foot in India. And they’ve echoed each other in saying that elevating the profile of soccer in India and aiding home-grown players are two of their goals.
“The country needs to develop regarding football,” said FC Pune City’s Trezeguet, a World Cup winner with France best remembered in club soccer for his time at Juventus. “Knowing my teammates, I see that they want to improve. Indians are attentive to all that we’re saying, which is great. Football has to rise. It just needs time.”
The managers ring a bell, too, even if they don’t quite have the same star power as the players. Apart from Materazzi, Brazil’s Zico, Peter Reid and Ricki Herbert all signed on in India. Herbert masterminded New Zealand’s unlikely draw against Italy at the 2010 World Cup. Reid, meanwhile, guided Sunderland in England’s Premier League and subsequently took charge of Thailand, which happens to be tied with India in the FIFA rankings.
“I don’t just want to go there for three months and that be the end of it,” said Reid, Mumbai City FC’s manager. “I’ll be disappointed if I don’t make a success of it. I know it’s a bigger project than that and I want to be involved.”
As much as the players and coaches are well known in the soccer world, the Indian public is no doubt more familiar with the owners. They include Sachin Tendulkar —cricket’s “Little Master”—former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly and Bollywood A-listers Salman Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and John Abraham.
MS Dhoni, the current Indian cricket captain, became the latest prominent stakeholder this week when he invested in Chennaiyin FC.
The reigning champion of Spain’s La Liga, Atlético Madrid, also has a stake with partial ownership of Atlético de Kolkata.
If the short-term goal is providing IPL-style entertainment, then the long-term objective is for the teams to develop grassroots programs in India.
“Setting up a grassroots program and finding a pathway for a player to come through into a football team doesn’t take a year or three years,” said Kerala Blasters FC manager Trevor Morgan, who coached Kolkata’s East Bengal in the I-League for three years. “It takes longer than that...But this is a huge step in the right direction for the football here.”
Subrata Paul, India’s No. 1 goalkeeper, hardly needs convincing. He said he and his Mumbai City FC teammates have already benefited from training with ex-German international defender Manuel Friedrich.
Paul is one of a handful of Indian players with European experience, with stints in Germany and Denmark. Another, Sunil Chhetri —Indian soccer’s golden boy—isn’t participating in the ISL. In June, the striker said he could only play if his I-League team, Bengaluru FC, allowed him. The I-League season is due to begin in early December.
“The Indian guys have quality,” said Paul. “We have talent. We don’t have good character. We learn the character from the Germans, like Manuel in front of us. When he trains, he gives 100 percent and we always try to learn something from players like him and from the other foreigners that are coming.”
India made one World Cup, in 1950, but that was by default and ultimately India decided not to travel to Brazil.
Then came the glory days, with India winning the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962, reaching the semifinals of the Olympics in 1956 and finishing second at the Asian Cup in 1964. But that was followed by a lengthy spell in soccer’s backwater.
India’s appearance at the Asian Cup in 2011 ended a 27-year drought, although any thoughts of sustained progress were soon wiped out. India was outscored 7-0 in its two games last month at the Asian Games and on Monday, Dutchman Wim
Koevermans resigned as India manager in the wake of a 3-2 friendly defeat at home to Palestine.
Morgan isn’t discounting an Indian revival, eventually, with the ISL the potential watershed.
“Nobody thought 20 years ago that the USA, South Korea, Japan would be competing in World Cups,” he said. “They did things right, they set things up properly and then they achieved their aims. That could happen in India.”