New Indian soccer league brings glamour and just a little skepticism

By Trudy Harris ,AFP

KOLKATA, India — With Bollywood stars, cricketing greats and a slick marketing campaign, India’s new soccer league is gunning to become the next big thing in sport. But just days before Sunday’s kick-off in the eastern city of Kolkata, the Indian Super League (ISL), which has lured a host of former international stars, is facing skepticism. Some question the caliber of the league’s top players, who include veterans like the controversial French striker Nicolas Anelka and ex-Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg.

Others say the tournament cannot hope to gain traction in a cricket-obsessed country whose sporting authorities have long failed to cultivate passion for the “beautiful game.”

“They are has-beens, definitely not at the pinnacle of their careers,” said Dave Chattaway from British-based Brand Finance, referring to the marquee players. “You can’t wheel out a well-known player for the last 20 minutes of a game and let them kick the ball a bit,” added Chattaway, who evaluates sports leagues worldwide. “It has to be top-level sport, fiercely competitive, to attract the crowds,” he said, adding that he hoped the league would be a success. Modeled on cricket’s glitzy Indian Premier League, the eight-team city-based franchises have famous front men, including former Italy great Alessandro Del Piero, 39, for the two-month long competition. Co-owners include cricketing icon Sachin Tendukar, Bollywood A-listers Salman Khan and Ranbir Kapoor, as well as Atletico Madrid of Spain’s La Liga. Cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni announced this week he has also signed as a co-owner, because he wanted to help create “world-class football” in India.

Room for Soccer Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV is showing the tournament, which is also being backed by sports management giant IMG and Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries.

Owners and organizers are eyeing India’s 1.25 billion population, especially its rising middle class and huge numbers of youth, for a windfall in the long term. Not only are they hoping crowds will flock to stadiums, but also buy merchandise and lure more sponsors. Although cricket dominates the back pages, the English Premier League and other soccer competitions in Europe are a major driver behind the growth of satellite TV here. Former Manchester City and Sunderland boss Peter Reid, who is managing the Mumbai team, said the potential for soccer’s popularity in India was huge, pointing to the game’s growth in the U.S. “I know India’s a cricket-mad nation and so am I (cricket-mad), but there’s room for football as well without a doubt,” Reid told reporters last week.