India has so far been a minnow when it comes to football. But a new 'super league' featuring former stars and all-round marketing is expected to change this. In the midst of all, there is also a German: Manuel Friedrich.
Anelka, Trezeguet, del Piero, Materazzi, Pirès, Ljungberg - names that sound like a Champions League selection at the beginning of the 21st century. But the thing that links all these football stars is not only the fact that they are all past their prime, they are also taking part in the Indian Super League (ISL), the South Asian nation's newly-established professional football league, due to start on October 12.
Among these yesteryear superstars of the pitch, there is also a German player, Manuel Friedrich. The center back played for several Bundesliga clubs, including Mainz 05, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. Friedrich will now play for the ISL franchise Mumbai City FC.
"I already wanted to go to Asia one and a half years ago," says the 35-year-old, "but this was the first offer where I felt that the people behind it were really motivated. There's also the fact that this is a completely new tournament the main goal of which is to make football more attractive in India, given that it is not the number one sport in the country. I was impressed by the whole experience."
New league, old stars
Friedrich's new club is one of the eight franchise teams from all around India competing in the ISL.
The teams have illustrious names such as "Delhi Dynamos", "Kerala Blasters" and "Atlético de Kolkata." The clubs follow an unusual concept: each team is to be led by a globally renowned "football legend." Furthermore, every team squad consists of seven foreign players and 14 Indian footballers. The patrons of these clubs feature mainly former cricket stars, Bollywood heavyweights and big industrialists.
There is no doubt that the newly launched ISL is extraordinary given that it was produced out of thin air in a short span of time by the marketing company IMG and Rupert Murdoch's media empire. These companies see a huge business opportunity in India, a country home to more than 1.2 billion people. It is estimated that some 80 million Indians regularly watch the sport on TV. But they usually follow tournaments such as the European Champions League, and not Indian football. The new ISL therefore aims to increase Indians' affection for local football.
"Of course, a lot of it depends on how football is accepted, how attractive our game is and if we can bring people into the stadiums," says Friedrich. "We have the opening match on Sunday in Kolkata and some 120,000 people will be there to watch it. I also think that people will also remember the mood and anticipation when they go into the stadium," says the former German international player.
India has had another professional football league, called I-League, since 2007. It is, however, facing irrelevance as only the Kolkata derbys - football matches between the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal teams - attract the masses, drawing more than 100,000 spectators to the stadium.
But in the rest of the country, the situation is grim with very few people attending the games. Moreover, India's national team languishes at number 158 in the FIFA world rankings - between Puerto Rico and Swaziland.
Football in India has lagged behind the country's most popular sport cricket. Furthermore, it has difficulties finding sponsors as the TV ratings remain very low. The sport also lacks the necessary infrastructure such as training centers for young people, professional clubs and even proper stadiums with floodlights. Many I-League games therefore take place during the day at temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees causing physical strain to both players and audience.
But over the past few years things have been changing in Indian football. "The Indian Super League (ISL) is going to start and of course with that it looks like that things are about to happen at the top level," says Arunava Chowdhury, the manager of Mumbai City FC. "At the other end, the federation, along with the local and the district association, is trying to structure club football in India," he adds. "The Indian Football Federation is working on setting up regional and elite academies and the franchises of the Indian Super League are also starting their grassroots program, so kids can have a chance to play football regularly."
Role model J-League?
The Indian football fans hope for a development similar to the one that has taken place in Japan. In the East Asian country, football remained a minor sport up until the 1990s. Baseball and sumo wrestling were way ahead in terms of popularity. But in 1993 the professional J-League arrived on the scene - with franchise clubs, sponsorships and international football veterans.
The league - through its promotional activities and state of the art training centers, has helped Japan emerge as a major football nation. Up until 1998, for instance, the Japanese national team had failed to qualify to participate in a FIFA World Cup. But since 1998, it hasn't missed to qualify a single time.
Chowdhury, however, warns against high expectations. "It will take a decade or more to really be able to reach that level and only then can India think of producing a team which may get close to the World Cup," he says. "First of all we need to play in the Asian Cup regularly. Once we have achieved that, we can think about going to the World Cup," he adds.