CHENNAI: When the Indian Premier League took off amidst much fanfare in 2008, it had the entire sporting world sit up and take notice. And for good reason as well! The IPL was not just a sporting event, but a recipe that catered to the tastes of the second biggest population in the world. The instructions were simple — take the sport in question, add a healthy dose of glitz, a bit of glamour and tip over the pot marked ‘hype’.
Attempts had been made before to recreate that magic, but 2014 will be remembered as the year when the term ‘IPL-style’ well and truly became part of the Indian sporting jargon. First there was the pro-Kabbadi league which turned a game hitherto played in the sands of Indian villages and took it to the O2 Arena in London.
The likes of Mahesh Bhupathi and Vijay Amritraj also took the formula and implemented it in tennis, creating the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) and the Champions Tennis League (CTL) as well. And then, there was the Indian Super League.
When IMG-Reliance — a joint venture between sports management behemoths International Management Group (IMG) and Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance — announced plans for a tournament featuring some of the beautiful game’s best ever players, most of the country’s football fraternity initially scoffed. And why would they not? The most famous foreigner to have played for a club in India, up to that point, was Rohan Ricketts, famous for a two-game stint with Arsenal.
No city, bar Kolkata during the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan clashes, had managed to attract a sizeable crowd to a stadium. The game drew a blank with sponsors, with the government-run ONGC forced to fund the I-League for most part of its life.
An year on, the Indian football fan is still rubbing his eyes in disbelief having seen the likes of Gouramangi Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi run out alongside the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Nicolas Anelka. Games in Kochi attracted more than 60000 people, something that Kerala has not seen since the turn of the millennium. Sponsors flocked at franchises’ doorstops with some teams sporting better paid-for jerseys than Premier League strugglers. The ISL had not so much changed the equations as it had the theory behind it.
Barely a week has passed since the ISL final was held at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai — ironically the venue that hosted the first ever IPL final as well — but talks have already begun about the future. A plan to merge the ISL and the I-League has already been mooted, while franchises have reportedly been given the go-ahead to pursue bigger and better players for next year.
While the ISL getting bigger and better is welcome news, its creators must also ensure that its development mirrors that of Indian football. The signs are ominous. As the final passes of the ISL were being made, the country’s football team slipped to 171 on FIFA rankings. A week later, ‘willingness to accept a suitable pay-packet’ appears to have become the clinching criteria in the process to select a new Indian coach. In the immortal words of Charles Dickens, these are the best of times and the worst of times!
The inaugural edition of the ISL has no doubt been the parting of the seas that the game in the country has been waiting for. But can the country’s football administrators summon the legs and walk through to deliverance? Only time holds the answer to that question.