Column: JUST SPORT
By Veturi Srivatsa*
After almost a week of action with all eight teams playing at least one match each in the Indian Super League (ISL), the performances have been nothing to write home about. And actor John Abraham, co-owner of NorthEast United FC, was quick to realise that promotion of football should begin in the region before one starts looking at the bigger picture.
As if to remind the Indian football authorities, FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke, like a broken record, said the country should concentrate more on developing the sport at the grassroots level and ISL should be used as scaffolding in building the edifice. For him one of the pillars of that will be the 2017 Under-17 World Cup that India is hosting.
Any sporting event in India should not be viewed purely as a commercial venture whatever the market forces might dictate. It should generate enough money for it to plough much of it back into the game. The first prerequisite for all the franchises should be floating their academies to take the sport from their level down to the masses.
Like in all spheres of life in this country, the so-called middle class will have to nurture sports also, but football is one sport that can go right down to the lowest stratum of society. A couple of the top European clubs lent their names to academies which charge prohibitive fees and train the children of high-end income group.
The first impressions of the league’s novelty is it has succeeded in bringing to the stadia sizable crowds which had run away from the game in the last couple of decades. Even if one concedes that gathering 60,000 spectators for a football match in Kolkata is no big deal, the 25,000-strong response in Delhi is heartening.
That’s not all for football. As suggested in these columns, John is determined to take his team’s matches to other cities in the catchment areas of the northeast. If other franchises do it, more and more cities can be involved in promoting the game.
The league could do with a restless futurist like Lalit Modi to bring in some devices to make it more enticing for the football fan, like he introduced cheer girls in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and other sports leagues are following his glamour quotient by roping in Bollywood.
The film stars are proving to be better promoters of sports. They have given such a big boost to kabaddi which was otherwise seen as a rustic, menial rural sport. Many converts now say that it is much more exciting in such a short duration of play than any other glamorous sport. People now want to see more such physical activity.
Football has to catch the imagination of the people. For that to happen, knowing Italians Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi and Spaniards Joan Capdevila and Luis Garcia and Frenchmen David Trezeguet and Robert Pires is not enough — the fans should identify themselves with the Sunil Chhetris, Syed Rahim Nabis, Gouramangi Singhs, Subrata Pals and Mehtab Hossains.
Of course, they may now notice Bhaichung Bhutia more as a celebrity as compared to a versatile I.M. Vijayan.
Italian coach of FC Pune City, Franco Colamba, saying the ISL stint will add to his son Davide’s understanding of football, is maybe something unless he is talking like a good guest. Davide himself admits that his ambition to play for Italy is pretty tough because he has to succeed first in Serie A and it is tough to get into the top division Italian league. Then what to talk of Indians, they are surely overawed by the presence of big names.
Frankly, the level of football played in the ISL is average and the gap between the Indians and the overseas players has to be bridged — Balwant becoming the first Indian to score in the ISL notwithstanding. And Subrata Pal saying that the standard of ISL is better than I-League is no certificate for the pro league.
Valcke had the last word, that a two-month league is no substitute for the six-month-long I-League which remains the national tournament, thus putting an end to speculation that ISL will ultimately devour I-League.
For all the hype and taking teams around like a circus troupe will neither enrich Indian football nor make Indian players skillful.
If at all, it will give them some confidence of rubbing shoulders with the game’s elites — albeit of yesteryears. In the IPL it worked to the advantage of the Indians just because there is intrinsic worth in the players who have come through age-group competitions — as also the participation of cricket’s current top internationals.
It is not to run down Indian footballers who are often compared with those playing for strife-torn Afghanistan and Palestine. A week ago Palestine beat India and all that it did was to get Dutch coach Wim Koevermans sacked.
The AIFF will suggest another name and he will also meet the same fate after conning the media with quotes like India should be in the top 100 of the world with their skills. It sounds good because India are presently ranked 157. And that’s not good for Indian football.
*Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] IANS