Can ISL make Football Popular in India?

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: October 2014

When it comes to sports, Indians never had much options, at least until recently. Cricket, often known as the gentleman’s’ game has always been modern India’s first love, so much so that it receives a cult status in the subcontinent. Cricketers, who are often bigger than Bollywood stars in popularity, fame and money, are worshipped like stars here.

Earlier cricket frenzy here was limited to the international team and its heroics, but in the last decade, the Indian businessmen, who saw more money to be made in it, decided to start the domestic club cricket league, on the lines of football leagues in Europe. This inevitably led to more money flowing in, and despite much allegations of the game being stripped of its essence, IPL has remained one of the most successful Indian business ventures.

That could be about to change though, as the corporate community that has made cricket this big has recently started focusing outside cricket, to football. It’s not like there are no football fans here, small pockets of South and North East States already have a good number of football fans, enough to challenge the cricket crazy crowd in the region. But can that enthusiasm be spread to other parts of the country? The businessmen who invested in the latest Indian Super League (ISL) definitely seem to believe so.

To be fair to football fans, this is not the first time an attempt has been made to make the game mainstream. In 2007, a venture named I-League made debut, but perhaps due to lack of investment and marketing ended up unheard of in most parts of the country.

For those who have thrown money into ISL include some of the biggest names around. Sachin Tendulkar, probably the biggest name ever in Indian cricket bought one of the franchises along with a partner group. Saurav Ganguly, former cricketer, has also locked in deal with some business groups to dig his hands into money, buying up a franchise. Other big names include the Sun Group of Tamil Nadu and DEN Networks, a major cable TV distribution company.

The franchises have roped in local talent, and then brought in some international footballers to add punch to the whole thing. Being the first installment of the league, the foreign names are not that huge, mostly those who have retired from the international football scene. But they are quite upbeat about the prospects of the game here, optimistic that Indians will embrace it just like cricket.

Mumbai City FC’s German player Manuel Friedrich said Indian Super League can make football the number one sport in India.

“In our squad, we have got really good players with good techniques. Maybe there’s some difference in technical teaching. Football not the no. 1 sport in India. But we are here and we want to change this,” he said according to a report by The Hindu Newspaper.

“The education in technical aspect is little bit different compared to Germany. We have really good domestic players, we’ll play really good in the tournament”.

The League has even managed to grab the attention of some huge names abroad. The Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal reportedly said that ISL would definitely pull crowds in India despite the dominant status of Cricket.

“If you look at the history of football, it has always become quicker and it looks like it grows everywhere. It’s like a virus that multiplies, so I don’t imagine that it won’t take off,” Wenger said, according to The New Indian Express.

“It took a while in the United States but football’s now very popular. It faces cricket in India but there’s always room for a second sport.

“There’s only really badminton and cricket in India at the moment but there’s room for another sport. I know that the people there watch the Premier League and I’m convinced that with such a huge population, it will take off.”

Indeed, the FIFA president Sepp Blatter himself had said that India is the sleeping giant of football, referring to its underrepresentation considering the huge population.

Optimism apart, though, not much has been working in football’s favour until the start of ISL and an uphill task is at hand for the organizers of the League, with several key areas requiring close attention. This includes lack of broadcasters and sponsors, who fear losing money because not much people will be interested in it. The game doesn’t have the needed infrastructure, nor are there coaches with international exposure and training.

The failure of I-League has lessons for the organizers to learn from. Indeed, a lot of it comes down to marketing and here, the bigger you make it look, the better. The big names from Cricket and Bollywood are a huge advantage, as they will help attract people’s attention. But in the end, it would boil down to how exciting the games are on the ground, the enthusiasm and the energy that they will be able to build up as the ball kicks off. If they manage to pull off the aggression seen in European and Latin American games, the fan base would definitely grow, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Indians flocking as groups to stadiums to watch the games.

It would also be likely that youngsters would pick the game over Cricket in schools and colleges, if the League catches interest. India, so far, has a pathetic international team, that has not even once managed to qualify for the World Cup. This could also change, says those part of ISL, but does caution that it would take some time before things reach that level.

“It will take a decade or more to really be able to reach that level and only then can India think of producing a team which may get close to the World Cup,” says Arunava Chowdhury, the manager of Mumbai City FC, according to DW.

“First of all we need to play in the Asian Cup regularly. Once we have achieved that, we can think about going to the World Cup”.