The Indian Super League drew large crowds, new audiences and global sponsors to football, but will it ever match the zeal of cricket as a national sport?
India’s latest flirtation with football is just a few months old and it appears the Indian Super League has managed to forge new passions for the sport, as well as rejuvenate dormant ones among the country’s sporting fans. The ISL was in November last the most attended league in Asia, the fifth most attended in the world – a staggering statistic considering this is its inaugural season. And one not remotely possible without an existing predilection for football among the rank and file sports fans, of any nation. The “sleeping giant” moniker is often volleyed about in reference to India’s potential, and with the ISL attracting an average gate of more than 22,000 per game and its TV ratings being consistently high, perhaps there is genuine optimism.
Something is happening to football in India, moving slowly from a country that housed disparate regional leagues to one with an overall mission: improve our infrastructure, improve our homegrown players. We asked a group of people involved in the game here whether it’s even remotely conceivable that football could one day fell cricket as India’s sporting titan.
The Money Men
Arunava Chaudhuri, CEO, Mumbai City FC
How have the people of Mumbai taken to the team?
“It’s been highly positive. For the city of Sachin Tendulkar it’s surprisingly positive that we have 25,000 coming to each match at a stadium that is far out of town.”
And is football now more talked about?
“The profile has obviously been raised to a huge extent with names like Pires, Del Piero, Anelka, Trezeguet and Ljungberg – this is certainly the largest influx of foreigners we’ve had in India, and the fans have taken to them in a big way. One of the big signs is when we fly to other cities, at the beginning there was only hardcore football fans approaching Freddie [Ljungberg] or Nicolas [Anelka], but now our Indian players are recognised and asked for autographs.”
In a land where cricket is a national fetish, how can football compete?
“You should not compete with cricket, being realistic if you actually take the IPL out of TV ratings, then football is actually very big here, in terms of viewership: Champions League, the EPL, the World Cup. There’s been a positive glow after the World Cup as there was so much exciting football, and that has also helped.”
Will football one day rank alongside cricket in India?
“That’s what the hope is, I’ve been dealing with Indian football for around 16 years and we’ve probably had more coverage in the past few months than I’ve ever seen.”
businessman and co-owner of Atletico de Kolkata
Is football on the rise in India?
“We are going the English route – initially cricket was the dominant sport there, and gradually football took over. And now football is the ultimate sport and cricket follows. Here it is cricket, cricket and cricket; and second is football. “Cricket is a religion here but football is a way of life. The passion for football, especially in Kolkata and West Bengal, in Goa and Mumbai and in the north-east, is beyond imagination. It’s a morning ritual – at the breakfast table there is a discussion about football.”
What has the ISL done differently?
“Spectators want two things: they want quality of football and they want quality of experience. For that we have made a lot of effort, we try to give the best experience that football fans have seen in this country. And the quality of football has been far, far superior to anything seen before.”
But can the popularity continue or is it just novelty value?
“Ultimately people will watch sports if they are of a global standard. But we need to create the fanbase, and that will take a few years – whether it is in Kolkata or any other city. I can’t sign a Messi or a Ronaldo obviously, but similarly I can’t go out and only sign some Tom, Dick or Harry that nobody has heard of.”
– Excerpts from the Guardian