Has the Indian Super League awakened the sleeping giant?

Published 12/23/2014, 2:03 AM EST


“To wake up a sleeping giant you need several alarm clocks. We have set up several alarm clocks to monitor them. I am in my 30th year in FIFA and 13th year as the president. My tenure ends in 2015 but I won’t leave FIFA until I see the sport established in the sub-continent of India” 

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This is what FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in 2012 when asked about how FIFA would contribute to the development of football in India. FIFA along with AIFF wanted India to no longer be dominated by a single sport and also wished for a global sport like football to make a major mark in the country. Even though there was a FIFA recognized I league being organised, very few people outside West Bengal and Goa knew about its existence. The most embarrassing fact is that India is one of the first countries to introduce club football yet is still ranked 171st in the world. Hence so appropriately has Indian football been characterized as the “Sleeping giant”.

This decade has seen a great surge in the development of Indian football and undoubtedly a major portion of that surge has been from the Indian Super League. The league which was much needed in the current situation, with the national side ceaselessly slipping in the world rankings and countries the size of the smallest state of India ranking better. While many considered it a risky investment as many projects like this had previously failed to kick start, billionaires such as Mukesh  Ambani and media owners like Uday Shankar followed their gut and invested in the league. And thus the ISL was born.

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During the initial player drafting of ISL, it was disappointing to see most Indian football fans ignorant and blasé about the ISL. A few websites reported the drafting process and the mainstream media almost neglected it. The tournament got its major attention after the announcement of the marquee players and also because of celebrities taking up ownership of some of the teams. In a country like India sports persons and movie stars attractthe maximum eyeballs, and it was indeed a great gesture from people like Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, Hrithik Roshan, Virat Kohli, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and MS Dhoni to spend their money for the improvement of a sport that is less followed in India. When the ISL kicked off at Kolkata in front of a crowd of 66000, every Indian football fan was nervous and optimistic. Yes, there was a massive crowd for the opening ceremony, but will it be the same in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai where the sport is less followed and practiced? This is where the ISL has done wonders – it brought the spirit and enthusiasm of football to the audiences in cities where the sport had a smaller fan following. Even for a match of the national team, very small crowds would be seen, but for the ISL, Delhi posted an average attendance of 15,713, Chennai – 22,095, and Mumbai – 22592. ISL gave hope to a state like Kerala which has produced legends like IM VIjayan. Kerala had been waiting for a good club in the I league as many previous attempts had gone broke or were less successful. Hence after the introduction of Kerala Blasters , a massive support from the state was expected. These expectations were met as the state posted the highest average attendance of 49111. This average attendance was, in fact, the second best among the non-European leagues. ISL broke many viewership records and is now the fourth most watched football league in the world, with Serie A trailing it. This goes to show that in a highly populated country like India, football can indeed create wonders, and that the sleeping giant has now been woken up by the ISL. But what about the players? Has the ISL harnessed any good Indian talent? Yes it has!

Very few would have heard of Sandesh Jinghan, TP Rehneesh, Romeo Fernandes, Mandar Rao, Arnab Mondal, Narayan Das, Jeje, Balwant Singh and many more  before the tournament. But ISL has given them the perfect platform to exhibit their skills, and they have risen to the occasion. Playing alongside stars like  Pires, Garcia, Materazzi, many small-time Indian players have gained immensely in experience and exposure. Any follower of I league would, without a doubt, vouch for the improved quality of game on view.

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A further noteworthy observation is that the teams where the Indian players have performed have made a lot of progress in the tournament. A perfect example for this has been the rise of Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao . These players have played a important part in Goa’s rise from the bottom, and the team was even close to making it to the finals. Several homegrown star performers have already been receiving offers from European and Brazilian clubs, with a Brazilian club having reportedly approached Zico to esquire about Romeo. Sandesh Jinghan, who was awarded the emerging player of the tournament has also received offers from some European clubs. ISL has also established grassroots program for all the clubs, with each club investing a significant amount of money into it. Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) has broadened its grassroots programme in association with Spanish club Atletico de Madrid. The two clubs and the ISL will choose 15-20 boys and girls, nationally, in the under-12 and under-13 age-groups for a one-year special experience training in Madrid for regular performance and education assessments. With the other clubs investing into the program, a a platform to pick young talents has indeed been created courtesy ISL.

India is witnessing a revolution in football. The quality goals, attack, counterattacks, defending and tactics have improved to a large extent. Sadly there are some fans who still compare the tournament with big European leagues and dismiss the ISL saying it is just for profit or is just another business product. However, instead of comparing the ISL with top European leagues, a more worthy comparison would be with the I league and noting the improvement spearheaded by the ISL. Through the ISL, the I league may also potentially revamp itself and emerge bigger and better, perhaps with both the leagues being integrated so as to allow the teams to qualify for AFC championships. However, this is just the beginning, and the aftereffects of ISL are yet to be witnessed as our national team has not played a match  after the ISL. One thing is for sure, ISL has been the waking alarm that the sleeping giant India gravely needed.

 

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Dhruv George

11750 articles

Dhruv George is a senior Formula One and NASCAR analyst for EssentiallySports, having authored nearly 12000 articles spanning different sports like F1, NASCAR, Tennis, NFL, and eSports. He graduated with a PG Diploma in Journalism from the Xavier Institute of Communications. Dhruv has also conducted interviews with F1 driver Pierre Gasly and Moto2 rider Tony Arbolino.

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