India’s population- 125 crores. FIFA World rank- 158
Iceland population- 300,000. FIFA World Rank- 34
Yes, that is the difference between the quality of the game in two countries. Our country does not have 11 players who can compete at World Stage. Iceland (and many other African and Caribbean countries) is a force to reckon with, if not the strongest. And this, one of the sparsely populated European countries, almost made it to World Cup finals this year in Brazil, ousted only in the playoffs. African countries have regularly featured in World Cup.
Without going any further, it will be safe to assume that the fault does not lie in the quality of the young players India is producing. The problem lies in the structure. If won’t be an exaggeration to say that the basic facilities for football in India is around zero. The infrastructure lacks; the system is flawed.
You always wonder why so much is wrong with India's football structure? And more importantly, why we do keep shunning this glaring problem? For the record, India has never played in a football world cup. With 120 crore people, we haven't had a solitary appearance in so many editions of the world’s most watched event.
So when Indian Super League came to India, I was excited for many reasons. It is pretty obvious that this event is trying to cash on the success of IPL style franchisee owned city based tournament. And now that IPL has concluded 7 seven hugely successful seasons, ISL has a model to look at to work on its pluses and avoid the mistakes- both on field and off field. Indian premier league has been a huge hit in the country and apart from its commercial value, it has worked as a platform for young players to come forward and show the world what they have got. And mind you, it is not only Indian players but also the foreign players. Shane Watson, who almost lost his international career before he was awarded the Most Valuable Player in the first edition of IPL, will testify for this. ISL plans to do the same to football in India and the football fans here wants nothing else.
To be fair to the organizers, it has been a good start. The first game in Kolkata between Kolkata and Mumbai had a good crowd. Also, the presence of stars and renowned celebrities always feels good. There is lot of brand value associated with the tournament. Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan have stake in the teams. Also, Saurav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli had taken part in this. And then one or two marquee players whom the fans all around the world celebrate in each of the eight teams have been a big, big crowd puller. If you would have asked me whether you expect to see Alessandro Del Piero or Robert Pires or Nicolas Anelka playing in India in the twilight of their career; I would have bet anything against it. But today they are here, playing in front of Delhi and Kolkata crowds. I bet they will love this Indian affection as much as we want to see them here. And I will say again, this has been a perfect start. Big names who have bought teams, corporate houses involved- everything is perfect. If this extravaganza ends as enthusiastically as it has started; the Indian football can be on the verge of something very big.
But then, there is a big IF here. Everything new has some risk associated with it. ISL is not immune to it. Agreed, there is lot of money involved in this and they are serious about it but then, it is not just about the stars. The success depends on how the players perform on the pitch. That is the only success parameter. The teams have to look beyond the commercial deals, sponsors and moolah coming in. They have to get coaching staff, physios, scouts and act like a proper football club rather than a franchisee which is just interested for the 3 months they play. If they do not get the things on the field right, then in due course; their investments won’t fetch those returns which they are expecting and considering the start that looks probable in 4-5 years of time.
Having said that, I have pinned my hopes on this annual tournament to see football’s rise in India. As a fan, I should not be that concerned with how much money the respective people mentioned above are making with this. I am already indebted to them for starting ISL, for giving the fans of this game in India something to look forward to. The first step is always the hardest and that has been done and got over with. I wish them all the best for number of years to come.
To end, I will say that the initial response to this league has been good. Fans and media have been talking about it on the social media in a positive tone. There is a huge interest that has generated and the same is expected to last till December. And I personally believe if this doesn't take off India’s football, then probably and sadly, nothing will. And if this kick starts, hopefully in next 10 years, we will hear the Indian national anthem one day in a World Cup Finals match and feel the goose bumps. And may be, some will cry.
Nothing betters that.