Is football starting to rival cricket in Indians’ affections?
Not quite – but an expanded Indian Super League is packing out stadiums and increasing the profile of 'the beautiful game' in a nation whose love of 'the gentleman's game' has tended towards monomania
The year when it became possible to write about India’s relationship with football without mentioning the ‘c word’ – that’s how 2017 might end up being remembered by those involved. Cricket may still be a clear number one in terms of popularity on the subcontinent but events of the past few months have been hugely encouraging for football-lovers.
October’s 2017 Under-17 World Cup, the first global tournament to be held in the country, was a roaring success that broke attendance records, with a total 1,347,000 attending. The high point for the hosts came at the quarter-final stage, when a game between England and Brazil was moved from the north-eastern city of Guwahati to Kolkata due to a waterlogged pitch. In just two days, more than 60,000 tickets were sold for the hastily re-arranged fixture. Demand was many times greater.
“That tournament was a big deal,” says India’s national team coach, Englishman Stephen Constantine. “Not only did it show that there is passion for the game in India but it showed corporations and potential sponsors that there is money to be made from football and not just cricket.”
Following hard on that competition’s heels, the start of the 2017-18 India Super League (ISL) season on November 18 provided another example of the country’s growing love for the beautiful game. Tickets for the curtain-raising match between Kerala Blasters and ATK of Kolkata sold out fast, with fans protesting at the reduced 41,000 capacity of the newly all-seated stadium in Kochi that hosted the match.
Such demand bodes very well for what it a crucial season in the league’s short history. The ISL came into existence only in 2014, with eight teams playing over just ten weeks of football.
What it lacked in length, it made up for in glamour. The eight franchises were owned by high-profile businessmen, famous Bollywood stars and cricket legends. The glitz was burnished as famous, if aging, foreign stars such as Alessandro Del Piero and Nicolas Anelka arrived.
The fans responded. Average attendances of over 24,000 in the first season were huge for Asia (in fact, that number is on a par with attendances in the much-vaunted, big-spending Chinese Super League), adding to the tournament’s international profile.
Everything was looking good, then. But there was one problem: the ISL was not part of the India’s official football set-up; it was a completely separate competition.
The country’s traditional top tier is the I-League. Yet this tournament, which in its off-season supplies ISL teams with Indian players, has long struggled in terms of media interest, attendances, finances and corporate involvement. With its better-looking cousin suddenly appearing on the scene, such deficiencies were highlighted further.
The franchises are owned by high-profile businessmen, famous Bollywood stars and cricket legends
In 2016, there was talk of a merger between the two. Each could cover the other’s weaknesses, went the logic. The I-League had the history, a ready supply of players and the place at the top of the Indian pyramid, while the ISL had the money, the stars, the glamor and the profile.
Talks were held but a breakthrough has yet to be reached. In September of this year, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) agreed to draw up a road map for the unification of India’s football authorities. It is expected to be ready some time in December.
What may well happen before any further discussions of a merger take place, however, is that the ISL will become India’s de facto main league.
Bengaluru were the 2016 I-League champions – but subsequently quit to join the newly-expanded ISL. Eight teams have become ten and ten weeks have become almost four months. Teams that reach the end-of-season play-offs will play over 20 games in total. The whole enterprise is becoming more and more like a regular football season.
If crowds continue to flock to stadiums, then it could be that instead of merging with the I-League, the ISL will simply absorb its rival/partner and become the only show in India. That would be a significant step in football’s journey to rivaling cricket in the nation’s affections – but only time will tell.