Will the IPLS finally change India's footballing fortunes?
India are desperate to get involved with this footballing lark; will their new Premier league be the answer?
Next month the first Indian Premier League Soccer tournament will kick off with the hope of capturing the imagination of the Indian public, and boosting the fortunes of a national team that sits between the footballing luminaries of Bangladesh and Madagascar in 158th place, despite boasting a population of 1.2 billion.
India is well known as one of the world superpowers of cricket. Despite the huge interest in cricket, however, India also has a fair amount of interest in football, and plays host to one of the biggest derbies in the world; over 100,000 people pack out the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata for the match between rivals Muhon Bagan and East Bengal.
The format of the 7-week tournament is modelled somewhat on the hugely successful cricket IPL. Each team will be allowed a maximum of 4 foreign players (one of Asian origin) and a foreign coach. In an attempt to help produce better quality young Indian players each team must also have six local under-21 Indian players in the squad, giving them a chance to work with and learn from top players and experienced managers.
Included in the 4 foreign players, each team will have an ‘icon player’, who are auctioned off to the highest bidding team. The players auctioned this year were Hernan Crespo (£533,000), Fabio Cannavaro (£530,000), Robert Pires (£511,000), Jay-Jay Okocha (£351,000) and Robbie Fowler (£338,000). Teams have a salary cap of $2.5m (£1.58m).
The five franchises involved in the tournament are all based in West Bengal, a state of over 90 million people, but the organisers, a coalition of CGM (Celebrity Management Group) and the All India Football Federation (AIFF), say they have already been approached by teams wishing to expand the league into other parts of the country. The franchises are also expected to start turning a profit much earlier than the equivalent cricket IPL teams.
India is seen by many as the final frontier that football is yet to crack. The only time that India has qualified for a World Cup was in 1950, and they withdrew from the tournament after being told they could not play barefoot. In fact, even in the AFC Asian Cup they have only qualified three times despite entering every iteration since 1960; finishing as runners-up in 1964 and being knocked out in the first round in 1984 and 2011.
However, there are also many opposed to the tournament; many feel that the funding being allocated to the tournament by the AIFF could be better spent elsewhere, such as on player development or helping to produce better training facilities. Critics also feel it is a waste of money attempting to challenge the cricket juggernaut that is the IPL.
Only time will tell whether the IPLS will be as popular as hoped, and whether it also helps improve the fortunes of India’s underperforming national side. Whatever the outcome, it has certainly piqued worldwide interest already, and with Liverpool setting up an academy in Delhi, and other top teams seeing the potential market to tap into, it is surely only a matter of time before India makes its way to the top table of world football.