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Why the ISL can inspire generations of footballing superstars in India

Anirudh Menon
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Modified 10 Oct 2014, 21:45 IST
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Nita Ambani with the ISL marquee signings – portent of a great future for the game in India?

India and football madness

Take the two biggest clubs in the country, clubs from the same football mad city who have been at each other’s throats for nearly a century and add a big Cup semi-final and what do you get? Ingredients for an awesome match, that’s what.

The giant stadium was bouncing to the tune of a whopping 131,000 souls singing, chanting and reveling as their teams slogged it out on the pitch. This wasn’t another cracking Merseyside Derby at Anfield or a classic Derby Della Madonnina at the San Siro. This was the enormous Salt Lake Stadium and Mohun Bagan was taking on East Bengal in the 1997 Federation Cup.

You see, Indian football has had its moments, the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan rivalry and the 1950 World Cup tragi-fiasco stand out even amongst the greatest sporting tales this grand old nation has witnessed. The brand new Indian Super League aims to out-trump them all and take Indian football to uncharted new heights.

The global game and the Indian market

The best football clubs in the world right now have as many marketing masterminds off the pitch as they do sporting geniuses on it. And any marketing buff worth his salt knows that India is the market to be in right now.

Urban pubs overflow with young men and women in replica t-shirts singing their very own bastardised versions of famous club songs. Replica kits of the big clubs fly off shelves in malls the nation over. And on any given weekend, social media is awash with scathing attacks on opposition teams/coaches/fans; attacks which hold a viciousness that would make the most full throated geezers on the Kop blush. Point is, there are enough fanatics and potential fanatics amongst her immense populace to make India the football world’s last great untapped market.

The ISL is the biggest vindication of that yet. Clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona, PSG and even the great Boca Juniors had already set about attempting to get a foothold in the country by establishing football academies that offer courses in a variety of formats. The ISL, however, represents a whole new level of interaction – an interaction that raises the tantalising possibility that it may bring about a change in the fortunes of the beautiful game in the country

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Marquee signings – Treasure trove of experience and skill

All eight teams in the fledgling league have an unmistakable stamp of superstardom on them – thanks to the always dependable strategy of having marquee signings and the introduction of some top-notch managers to man the helms. And importantly, tie-ups with top international clubs.

Let’s make one thing clear here; as great as the ‘untapped potential’ of the sport is in India, there was no way we were going to see the big names at the top of their games play in a league like ours. Moving anywhere outside your elite European leagues represents nothing short of career suicide/voluntary retirement.

Robert Pires being harried by India U-19 players in a preseason friendly which FC Goa won 4-0

Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, David James, Luis Garcia, Freddie Ljungberg, Joan Capdevilla, Elano and David Trezeguet were almost all at top of the footballing worlds (or there and thereabout) at some point in their careers. But the fact remains that most of those high points have long since passed.

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Class, though, truly is permanent. And even if the old legs don’t have the same engines in them, the skills, technique and footballing brains of Pires and co. should in no way be affected. Picking their brains and playing (and training) alongside these greats would form a rare education to all and sundry, for no Indian would possibly have seen talent of that calibre perform at such close quarters.

An eclectic collection of world-class managers

As we all well know, success in the game is more often than not highly dependent on the quality of the managers at the helm of teams – talent is wasted unless guided properly. The class of managers that will feature in the ISL promises to have a great impact on the domestic football scene.

English legend Peter Reid overseeing Nicholas Anelka and his Mumbai City teammates in training

The mix of coaches are fairly eclectic in terms of experience and pedigree – Dutchman Harm van Veldhoven (best efforts as player and manager in the Belgian second division) will go toe-to-toe with the likes of the legendary Brazilian Zico (fulcrum of one of the greatest sides to ever line up on a football pitch).

There are first timers in David James and the charismatic Marco Materazzi and old hands in the forms of Franco Colomba and Antonio Lopez Habas. Meanwhile, Rickie Herbert guided New Zealand to the World Cup in 2010 and Peter Reid is a true legend of the game.

They bring with them footballing philosophies and outlooks that are truly global and the effects these great men will have on their teams will be almost as influential as that of the much publicized tie-ups that the franchises have with big European clubs.

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Published 07 Oct 2014, 14:54 IST
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