Rewinding the clock back a few years, no Indian soul would have imagined a sport, other than cricket, to attract millions of eyeballs. The statistics by TAM Media Research have indicated otherwise. The Indian Super League (ISL) has reached as many as 170.6 million in the first week since its inception. That is an unexpected yet encouraging sign for Indian football. Raking up 80% of the average IPL viewership on the Star Sports website and being second only to the IPL, in a cricket crazy nation, is a remarkable feat.
In the words of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, Indian football has been a “sleeping giant” in world football. India – a country with a population of 1.2 billion is ranked 159 in world football. It’s a shame that the country has nothing to show for in the world stage. ISL’s popularity has promised to put India on the world’s football map.
Football, or any other sport for that matter, has always been in the shadows of cricket in the country. Lack of funds, infrastructure, administration, and organisation of football has been relatively poor. ISL can change that. With superstars (like MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor etc.) taking the centre-stage, money getting pumped in, and a grand-stand showing of the league, home-grown football has established some ground in the country. Indian players were unknown entities before the tournament kick-started. ISL has given them a platform to gain mass support, something which has been the luxury of cricketers. Names like Syed Rahim Nabi, Balwant Singh, Gouramangi Singh and many more can be known across the country now.
These names and Indian football has existed – in the lesser known I-League. Even if the ISL cannot ensure developing football and homegrown talent, its induction can give the much-needed impetus to I-League. It hasn’t been the most prolific of football leagues in the world and the football players and fans have been largely concentrated to the states of Goa, Kerala, Bengal, and parts of the North East to a major extent. The popularity and reach can be gained via the IMG-Reliance’s ISL, and homegrown talent can be developed in the I-League.
Once people start following football, I-League can nurture and attract viewership comparative to the ISL. After all, it remains the “official championship of India”, as recognised by FIFA Secretary General, Jérôme Valcke.
There is no reason why the I-League cannot become a household phenomenon the way ISL has (thus far); with ISL attracting millions of eyeballs to the sport, and FIFA and AIFF gunning for support for Indian football.
The ISL may be thriving at the moment, but it assures little about the success of the sport. The razzmatazz and the stardom also catches a lot of attention from Indian audiences. How successful football be solely on sporting basis – that remains to be seen. One bunch of Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and the other bunch of Del Piero, Pires, Capdevilla, Trezequet and Garcia can be a magnet and attract a lot of viewership. But the real attention seeker must be the quality of football, and that too in the recognised I-league. That’s the way forward for Indian football.
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