Has India Created the Super League?

The first Indian Super League final will take place this weekend, when Atletico de Kolkata take on Kerala Blasters in Mumbai.

One cannot doubt that the three month season is going to be declared as a success, but it will take a somewhat more measured timescale before the actual realities come to light. Only time will show if this is the first blast of a new style of football competition, or a damp squib, that disappears from view after a few seasons.

Operating its teams as franchises, and having drafts to select the playing squads means that the ISL has been likened to American sports, and in particular Major League Soccer, but its dependency on marquee players, many past their use-by dates, and the bidding for the franchises mean it is more a hybrid of that other Indian Cricket phenomenon, the Indian Premier League and the short lived North American Soccer League.

There has always been football in India, with concentrations in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, and the city of Kolkata (Calcutta as was). The Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata is the venue for some of the biggest derby matches in the world, and matches between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have reportedly filled the stadium even when its capacity was 130,000. However, it is also true that the reality of the game in India is that most games take place in front of crowds of a couple of thousand, plus in some case a handful of snakes (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/mar/26/snakes-pitch-india-football-mohun-bagan). The official figures for the national I-League in 2013-14 season – an average crowd of 5618 was greeted by derision from fans of the game in India on social media, and a quick word with a friend who travelled to some games during the season backed up this.

Until, the mid-nineties, there was no Indian national championship, but a series of state and city competitions, and competitions where the top clubs from these came together in centralised locations for short tournaments. A national league was started in 1996, and then re-launched as the I-League in 2007. The first winner was Jagatjit Cotton Textile Mills (generally abbreviated to JCT Mills) from Phagwara – not far (in Indian terms at least) from Dehli. Since then, clubs from either Kolkata or Goa have won every title until last season when FC Bengaluru won on their first attempt. Bengaluru are evidence of an unevenness in the All Indian Football Federation’s attitudes to the I-League. While promotion and relegation is in place between this league and a second division (which is run as a tournament, rather than a league), they also parachute in new franchises. Hence for the 2013-14 season, they gave places to both Bengaluru (who became champions) and Mumbai Tigers (who did not start the season). When the now misnamed 2014-15 season starts in January, the league will include Royal Wahingdoh, promoted in place of bottom placed Mohammedan, and also a new club Kalyani Bharat (Kalyani is a company name), sharing the ground at Pune. Meanwhile three clubs, including Churchill (twice champions) have failed the obtain a licence, so the league will operate with just 11 clubs.

India’s National team did qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup, thanks to the confederations curious use of giving places to the winners of a second ranking competition, (the AFC Challenge Cup). There are 16 places in the Asian Cup, but only teams ranked less than 24 entered the lower competition, and India were just low enough to qualify for this in 2008, and won a competition they hosted. In the following competitions (2010 and 2012), India lost all three group games, while they could not even qualify for the 2014 tournament, which means they will not be in Australia next month for the next Asian Cup. The Challenge Cup is now being discontinued.

One could claim that the high point for the Indian National Team was the 1950 World Cup, as it is the only one they qualified for. Indeed in both qualification and the finals in 1950, India went unbeaten. They also did not win any games, and for that matter did not draw any. All of their opponents in the qualification phase, (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew and hence India reached the finals as “last man standing”, but simply not withdrawing earlier. India did withdraw before the final tournament started, and hence kept their perfect record. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics. India were reported as playing barefoot (which often means the feet are bandaged, but not booted), when losing 2-1 to France at Ilford in the London Olympics of 1948. The laws insisted on footwear afterwards, meaning they were booted when losing 10-1 to Yugoslavia in Helsinki two years later. Thanks to other withdrawals, India reached the semi-finals of the Melbourne Olympics (they had to win one match, against the hosts, Australia)in 1956, and also played in Rome in 1960 (when the matches were in groups of four). India finished bottom of their group with one draw (France) and two defeats. They have not troubled the World stage since.

The idea of an Indian Super League goes back to the start of the contract between the AIFF, and commercial partners Reliance and IMG signed in 2010. Reliance is India’s second biggest company, operating across a number of fields. IMG (International Management Group) is a US based sports marketing group; their production ground, (TWI) is already involved in the broadcast of football across Asia, including packaging Premier League shows for the international market. At the time the contract was signed, the Indian Premier League was a relatively new concept.

There are many reasons why the IPL concept is not truly suitable for football. The sixty matches of the IPL season in 2014 were compressed into around 7 weeks. The popularity of cricket in India is such that the IPL can offer the players far more than they earn with other domestic, or even from international competition – but anyway they can return to playing in other countries, or to the international circuit as soon as the IPL season is finished. Football requires a greater recovery time between games, so while the Super League season is 61 games, it is played over a period twice as long as the IPL season. With a requirement to train together and play some warm up games, Super League players need to be with their Indian clubs for around four months. The Indian Super League is not competitive with the major European Leagues in salary terms, so the big stars of the game are not going to leave their day jobs to play in India. This meant that the foreigners who made up a large part of the Super League were either stars whose light is already waning, or journeymen willing to travel for a short term contract.

Soon after the Reliance-IMG contract had commenced, they announced their first attempt at a new league. This would have been called the West Bengal Premier League. Despite one of the leading teams in the city being name East Bengal, the city of Kolkata is within the state of West Bengal, (generally, what was East Bengal is now known as Bangladesh). The intention was to create a franchised league with six franchises within the city and state. The existing teams would have been called on to be involved. The venture got as far as naming four marquee players – Fabio Cannavaro, Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo and Robert Pires. All four of the players, in their late thirties and just retired from major leagues were offered in excess of £500,000 to play in India. In the end, this league never took place, but the organisers had not given up on the idea. Instead they came up with what looks like a more ambitious plan – eight franchises spread across the country. There is good reason why this could succeed where a more localised league did not. A league involving teams from eight cities would be more capable of pulling in a national TV audience.

Still the plans did not run smooth. When the I-League released their fixtures for 2013-14, it included a very long break from January to March into which this new league would be plugged, but disagreements between some of the I-League teams and the new league meant that again the start was postponed. Other problems included the non-availability of a ground in Mumbai, and difficulties at other venues as well. The fact that the official launch of the league was on October 21st 2013, but the postponement of the dates was given just eight days later shows some chaos in the organisation. As a result, the I-League was rescheduled to complete a normal schedule.

Things really started to move in April, when the eight cities that had won franchises were announced. Test cricketers Sourav Ganguly and SachinTendulkar headed up the consortia that won the Kolkata and Kochi franchises, while Bollywood stars were named in three of the other winning bids. All the bids were backed by a number of Indian companies, and two of the I-League teams, Shillong Lajong and Dempo were directly involved. The Kolkata team named Atletico de Kolkata was also partially owned by Atletico Madrid.

With the franchises in place, each one could start recruiting, by signing its marquee player and coach. Most of the squads would come from two player draft sessions, from which seven foreign players and 14 Indians were chosen. In the Indian players draft, North East United selected exclusively from players of Shillong Lajong, and FC Goa from Dempo. Judging by the names I have seen for the draft, four i-League clubs, Bengaluru, Pune, Salgaocar and Sporting Goa declined to allow their contracted players enter the draft. Some state leagues, including Goa carried on at the same time as the super league, and so clubs may have preferred to keep their players for this. All of the I-League teams also run teams in their own state leagues. The Super League teams, as franchises created for this purpose only do not, although some promotion of the game in their areas is supposedly included in each franchises remit.

The Big Names.

Club Name Stadium (capacity) Head Coach Marquee Player
Atletico de Kolkata Salt Lake (68,000) Antonio Lopez Habas (Spain) Luis Garcia (Spain)
Chennaiyin Jawaharial Nehru (Chennai) (40,000) Marco Materazzi (Italy) Elano (Brazil)
Delhi Dynamos Jawaharial Nehru (Dehli) (60,000) Harm van Vedhoven (Netherlands) Alessandro del Piero (Italy)
Goa Fatorda (19,800) Zico (Brazil) Robert Pires (France)
Kerala Blasters Jawaharial Nehru (Kochi) (70,000) David James (England) David James (England)
Mumbai City DY Patil (55,000) Peter Reid (England) Fredrik Ljungberg (Sweden)
North East United Indira Ghandi (35,000) Ricki Herbert (New Zealand) Joan Capdevila (Spain)
Pune City Shree Shiv Chhatrapati (11,500) Franco Colomba (Italy) David Trezeguet (France)


Luis Garcia (36) said he had retired after a long career, mainly in Spain, but with three years at Liverpool, he finished his career in Mexico, and was out of the game for nine months before heading to India

Elano (33) played mainly in Brazil, but also for Manchester City and Galatasaray, his contract with Gremio was terminated in the summer. 50 caps for Brazil, including winning the Confederations cup

Alessandro del Piero (40) – over 500 games for Juventus, and 91 caps for Italy. Del Pierro has spent the last two seasons in Sydney. One world cup and eight Serie A medals.

Pires (41) – played for Arsenal when they could win the league, France when they could win the World Cup, but not played for three years before this

David James (44) – Had played up to the summer of 2013, when we was playing for IBV in Iceland. 53 England caps.

Fredrik Ljungberg (37) – 75 Swedish caps, and over 200 appearances for Arsenal. I last saw him when he was with Seattle in 2010, but he has had short spells with Celtic and Shimizu S-Pulse since. He announced his retirement two years before going to India

Joan Capdevila (36) – 60 Spanish Caps, and another World Cup winner, played almost all his football in Spain, mainly for Deportivo la Coruna and Villareal. After an unproductive season in Portugal with Benfica, he spent two years at Espanyol who released him in the summer.

David Trezegeut (37) – 71 French Caps, World Cup winner, French champion with Monaco, and then Italian champion with Juventus, but a bit of a traveller over the last few years, going to Hercules in Spain, who were relegated despite his goals, then after a very short spell with Baniyas in Abu Dhabi, onto River Plate recently relegated to the second division in Argentina. Despite helping the club return to the top division, they loaned him out last season to Newell’s Old Boys.

Some of the other better known players are just as old, Chennaiyin included Alessandro Nesta (38), Mikael Silvestre (37) and the positively youthful Bernard Mendy (33) in defence, alng with Erik Djemba-Dejemba (33). At Kerala Blasters, David James picked Michael Chopra (30), who had been at Blackpool last season, and the Canadian Iain Hume (31) who went to India from Fleetwood, as well as Scotsmen Stephen Pearson (32, signed from Bristol City) and Jamie McAllister (32, from Yeovil). Dehli signed 38 year old Czech goalkeeper Marek Cech, who has played as far afield as Vladivostock, but never selected him, preferring to give the jersey to the 27 year old Belgian Kristof van Hout, formerly of Genk and Kortrijk. They also had Morten Skoubo (34) and Mads Junker (33), both from Denmark in their attack. For goals, though, they relied on the 20 year old Gustavo Marmentini from Brazil who had played for Atletico Paranaense, but only in their regional squads, not the top division. Pune City included 37 year old Italians in Bruno Cirillo who had a season off after playing for Metz in the third division in France, and the Romanian Adrian Mutu (35) – who ended up without an appearance in India. They also had Jermaine Pennant, a free agent since being released by Stoke in January. AT Mumbai, Peter Ried included Nicolas Anelka (35) who could not play for three games due to a ban from his time at West Bromwich. He went on to play seven times and scored twice. North East United signed New Zealander Leo Bertos (formerly of Barnsley, Rochdale, etc.) on loan from East Bengal. The 32 year old had been released from New Zealand’s A-League side at the end of last season, and had signed as the marquee player for the I-League club, but then went north on loan after playing a small number of CFL games (the regional league in Kolkata is still known by its British title, the Calcutta Football League, not under the current city name of Kolkata). They also included James Keene who has played 2 Premier League, and nine League-1 games for Portsmouth, while spending most of his career with Elfsborg in Sweden.

So what is this league supposed to achieve, and what will it achieve? The Indian authorities see it as revitalising the domestic game, and even improving the results of the National team. It may well have done the first of these, but it will take a long time to see if it can achieve the second. Both the NASL and the J-League started with a high number of European players who really ought to be retired, but in both countries, there are now vibrant football competitions. On the opposite side of the coins, the regular appearances by similar players in Arabian countries (for example) has done little to promote the game, or improve their national teams. I cannot see it having a beneficial effect on the other national league. Surely if the crowds come to the Super League, they will see the I-League as a secondary competition. Crowd wise, the league is claiming an average attendance in excess of 26,000 – meaning only the Bundesliga, English Premier and Spanish League get higher averages. However, the costs of putting the league on mean that even if every match is played to a capacity stadium, every team would lose money. The financial implications of the league are in the TV audience. The league has managed to negotiate a deal with Star TV (part of the same group as Sky in the UK), which puts games out on multiple channels, so as they are available in five different languages. The success of the league will depend on having a viewing audience. The scheduling of the matches is generally one at a time, with games on almost every day, to give a continual presence. The season ends with semi-finals and a final, so four of the eight teams reach the finals. The teams are closely enough matched that almost every game, right to the end had something on it.

If it is a success, then one has to ask what this means for the game worldwide. Even if Indian football itself improves massively, this will not change the world. World football can take in any number of improved national teams, and the game can only benefit if populous nations such as India join the club. The format however presents a challenge, and if successful it may well be imitated elsewhere. It is not difficult to imagine a football circus travelling the world and playing for a few months in one country before decamping to the next venue. I fear that such a scenario may well damage local football in the host countries, as I find it hard to really imagine these leagues building the continued effort to work with the local kids.

I do not believe it will affect the dominance of foreign televised football in countries such as India. The marquee players of the Super League are all aging players who have made their name in the European Leagues and International football. Still, I wonder if it is co-incident that right at the end of this tournament, we also saw a marketing push for the English Premier League, based on a weekend event which brought over 20,000 to watch games at a fan-park in Mumbai. Does the Premier League now feel it needs to work to keep its dominance in the market?

It will be years before we know the answers, but before this league started, one had to say that Football in India needed fixing. This is the most innovative attempt at changing the structure of the game anywhere in the world, and I for one am not sure if that is to be embraced or feared.

In the meantime, Kerala Blasters will play Atletico de Kolkata at 12.30 (UK time) this Saturday (20 December 2014)

I also suggest reading this. Written just before the league started