SBC News Indian football needs a 'Soccer Sachin'

Indian football needs a ‘Soccer Sachin’

SBC News’ Sam Cooke revisits the Indian Super League after its glitzy opening weekend and notices the absence of local footballing stars.

So it begins…

The much anticipated Indian Super League (ISL) kicked off its debut season on Sunday at the Salt Lake Stadium in West Bengal.

Atletico De Kolkata, a team subtly affiliated with Atletico Madrid, were the victors with a three nil triumph over Mumbai City FC. Peter Reid’s Mumbai side were swiftly undone and the former Sunderland manager admitted that “the better team won on the day”. Reid’s side were without two of their major stars in the form of Nicolas Anelka, who was suspended, and Freddie Ljungberg who was suffering from a calf strain.

The ISL opening ceremony

On Monday the league’s second game between NorthEast United and Kerala Blasters saw the Blasters go down one nil. Kerala Blasters have on the books well known names from British football such as David James, Iain Hume and Michael Chopra, though Chopra did not start due to a lack of match fitness.

The opening ceremony in Calcutta was a glitzy affair and involved cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, who co-owns the Kerala Blasters, as well as Priyanka Chopra, a Bollywood actress, and a host of other stars.

Whilst the inaugural competition will last for only ten weeks, it is expected that as the popularity of football grows in India, that the ISL too will expand and improve. Having already attracted some notable footballing and coaching talent, as well as significant financial backing, it seems highly likely that it will achieve its aims, at least in the short term.

Teething problems

One potential stumbling block to the progress of the sport in India is that due to the league sponsors’ wish to recoup their investments, the more affluent in Indian society have been made the target market. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has openly admitted such; Vice President Subrata Dutta told the BBC: “We are targetting more affluent people from higher income brackets.”

“They are the target audience of the sponsors. They are the decision-makers,” he continued.

Atletico de Kolkata ticket prices have been set at a minimum of £25, which has been the cause of complaint by sections of would-be fans who feel that they have been priced out of attending matches. This is around three to four times the price of a ticket to Indian Premier League football matches held in the same stadium. This is a club with a higher capacity stadium than most; Sunday’s attendance was around the 70,000 mark despite the pricing structure. This however did include a significant amount of tickets distributed for free with yet more heavily discounted.

The main aim, and the greatest challenge, will be to sustain the hype that has been generated around the ISL.

The ISL parades its stars without a homegrown player in site

Those involved in the formation and organisation of the ISL have grand ambitions of India becoming a global footballing power, with one of the first key milestones being to qualify for the 2026 World Cup. Recognisable names such as Anelka and Del Piero, who will both doubtless be vying for the initial ISL Golden Boot, make for an exciting start to the league but they cannot sustain its progress. The buzz around them will die down, and it will be left to homegrown Indian talent, and moreover the continued interest of  the masses, to fuel the growth of Indian football. One simple fix to such a major problem; Indian football needs a star. Del Piero and co. will draw crowds but the youth need a homegrown hero.

A reporter from the BBC spoke to some children playing football prior to Sunday’s opening match. Joyjit, 13, said: “Why should we watch Indian football? There are no good players here. When we have some, then we will start going to the stadium.”

If the dream of rivalling cricket and becoming a global force in the sport is to come true, Indian football needs a Sachin Tendulkar figure, the sooner the better.

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