Zico remembers, with some surprise, his first visit to India. It was the winter of 2004 and as Japan coach, Zico was at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata. "You had 80,000 spectators cheering for the national team, knowing fully well they had no chance of getting past us in the qualifiers and eventually qualify for the World Cup. It's puzzling," the Brazilian legend told TOI, recalling the 4-0 drubbing of India. That was a decade ago. Today, as FC Goa chief coach, Zico continues to be puzzled by Indian football, as it continues to puzzle almost everyone else. India's ranking has remained consistently in the 150s from among the 200-odd countries that play football around the world. The I-League, India's premier football competition, draws an average of 2,500 spectators outside Kolkata and only one in ten, hopefully, will tell you the name of India's football captain. Yet, millions tune in to watch the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga. European clubs sell more merchandise here than most other parts of Asia and the football World Cup, like the one that recently concluded in Brazil, was one of the most watched and celebrated sporting event. "India loves football, surely, but of the European type. Not many care for domestic football," said Gouramangi Singh, India's mainstay defender for several years now plying his trade with Chennaiyin FC. "As footballers, we all dream of playing in Europe and experiencing the professional set-up that they have. But with the Indian Super League (ISL) the same thing is replicated here. The professional approach of the franchisees is amazing, both on and off the field. The right mix of celebrities and corporates has given the game a boost like never before," said Gouramangi, admitting he is duty-bound to take his game a few notches higher after being coached by World Cup winner Marco Materazzi. The ISL, borrowed heavily from the successful Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket, has been three years in the making, and finally, after two postponements, it's finally happening. The league - blessed by the presence of five World Cup winners - has eight city-based franchisees jostling for a winners cash purse of Rs 8 crore, twelve times more than India's premier football competition. "I've never seen anything like this before. We trained in Spain and did exactly what Spanish champions Atletico Madrid were doing," said midfielder Climax Lawrence, speaking with the experience of having played 15 years for top clubs in the country.
"Every aspect of the game is tackled professionally. Whether it's our training, diet or competition, there is very little that could have been done better," said the former India captain, who will play for Atletico de's Kolkata. Like the players admitted, the ISL is an entirely different world for them. They stay in five-star hotels, rub shoulders with World Cup winners during training and competition, enjoy preparing on the best of surfaces, even have an ambulance stationed for training session, diet remains monitored and security officers round the clock, probably, give them an altogether different feel. "When we signed up for the league, we didn't know it would attain such dizzy heights," said India defender Denzil Franco. Nobody is fooled into believing change will happen overnight. The unmatched focus on youth development from each franchise also means, beyond the glitz and glamour, there is enough even if you scratch the surface. "Somehow I wish I was a 12 year old now," says Gouramangi, 28, who has 75 national caps to his credit. "The ISL is taking baby steps towards changing the face of Indian football. Imagine in five years time, if everything works according to plan, there won't be a better place for a young footballer than India," he said. And, maybe then, you'd see an Indian face or two imprinted on jerseys donned by milling fans at an ISL turnstile. That would be a start in itself.