Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke was at hand to watch Delhi franchise play out against Pune and he liked the level of enthusiasm.
Co-owned by La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, the Kolkata team, with Spaniard Luis Garcia as their marquee player, currently top the table having won both their games so far. Photo: AFP
The jury is still out on whether the Indian Super League (ISL) can wake the world’s second most populous nation from its football slumber but the first week of the eight-team competition has at least made people sit up and take notice.
Some 70,000 fans thronged the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata for last Sunday’s spectacular opening ceremony and the social media has been abuzz with discussions about the league with celebrity owners, experienced foreign managers and a sprinkling of high-profile players.
Not a bad start in a cricket-obsessed country of 1.2 billion, which ranks an embarrassing 158th and was described as football’s ‘sleeping giant’ by Fifa president Sepp Blatter.
Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke was at hand to watch Alessandro Del Piero’s Delhi franchise play out a goalless draw against David Trezeguet’s Pune on Tuesday and he liked the level of enthusiasm.
“What was nice last night is the sound, it was amazing,” Valcke later said of his experience at the capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
“(I witnessed) How strong was the support of the fans in the stadium, how they supported the teams, how they supported whenever there was a change of player, how they supported Del Piero when he came in.
“That’s football. That’s when you feel yes, football has its place in India. Yesterday you saw a culture of football here.”
The first week of the tournament has also seen packed stadiums at other venues and the trend is expected to continue after the West Indies cricket team abruptly called off their tour of India on Friday following their internal dispute.
“It’s not a question of competing with cricket but I think India is big enough to have a second sport and football is strong enough to become the second sport in India,” Valcke said.
Bankrolled by Reliance Industries Ltd, Rupert Murdoch’s Star India Pvt. Ltd and sports management group IMG, the ISL has welcomed former cricket greats Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, as well as current captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, among the team owners.
The league’s strong start has fuelled fears that it might eclipse the national league but the All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel assured I-League will remain the country’s only league.
“I-League is the league of India. This (ISL) is a tournament which brings more attention and extra popularity, it’s like a booster dose,” Patel said.
“I can assure you that a number of ISL clubs would also like to progress into I-League eventually. I think it’s a good beginning.”
Co-owned by La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, the Kolkata team, with Spaniard Luis Garcia as their marquee player, currently top the table having won both their games so far.
The demand for ISL tickets is in stark contrast to the I-League and Arthur Papas, deputy coach of the Goa franchise, had no hesitation in admitting it having been involved in both.
“I’ve been in this country for two and a half years playing in national leagues and I-League, but I haven’t felt this sense of excitement about a competition before,” said the Australian who coaches Dempo in the I-League.
“That’s probably what is lacking at the I-League... A packed stadium will improve the product you see on TV all around the world, not just in India,” he added.