Let's have a closer look at the Indian Premier League. Leave the cynicism at the door on your way in please, open minds only from here on in.....
“I am delighted to be playing in the 2012 PLS in India. I have achieved many things in my career and if I can help grow football in India it will be a great honour.”
Those are indeed the words of 2006 World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro. The former Juventus and Real Madrid ace who captained his country to glory in Berlin almost six years ago, announced last week he is set to join the newly formed ‘Premier League Soccer’. While sceptics question the motives of a money-making spin-off of the IPL in Cricket, this really isn’t a Bollywood adaptation of Escape to Victory meets The Expendables. Forget cricket, football is set to arrive in India.
How does it work?
The competition is the brain-child of The Celebrity Management Group (CMG), who have struck a deal with the Indian Football Association. The competition will begin on February 25 and will run until April 8, with 30 players and six coaches set to be auctioned off later this month. The six teams taking part are; Kolkata, Barasat, Howrah, Haldia, Durgapur and Siliguri. Each ‘franchise’ will be allocated a minimum annual fee, for those wealthy individuals looking for a slice of football pie, which will be dependent on size. For example, Kolkata, widely regarded as the heart of football fandom in India, will be the highest priced at $195,000.
Joining the 38-year-old Cannavaro are the likes of Robert Pires, Robbie Fowler, Jay-Jay (so good they named him twice) Okocha, Hernan Crespo, Juan Pablo Sorin and Fernando Morientes. The fun doesn’t stop there. Among the coaches selected to lead the sides into the competition are Colin Todd, Peter Reid, John Barnes and of course the much-loved and renowned Samson Siasia. Sarcasm aside, it’s an improvement on the current crop of Indian ‘stars’ who are unlikely to have ever graced newspapers beyond the Indian borders.
Bhaswar Goswami, executive director of CMG, has made no secret of the inspiration behind the tournament and has outlined how the auction process will work.
"The league is modelled on Major League Soccer and of course IPL. Every team will have $2.5 million to spend in the first year and each of the six teams will have a $600,000 salary cap. They will have a maximum of four foreigners and a compulsory six under-21 Indian players in their squad."
Such is the confidence of Goswami, he envisages the tournament developing as early as next year with other states apparently approaching him to expand the league. The executive director is also in the process of finalising television rights for live broadcasts of the league across south-east Asia.
What does it mean for football in India?
The current international side is ranked 162nd in the FIFA rankings. Admittedly Cricket has an almost religion-like status as the nation’s principal sport, but it is surprising to learn of the figures and interest the country holds for Football. The commercial rights to televise European games were sold for $140 million in 2010, while there are an estimated 83 million viewers of the beautiful game in the country, with 55% of them watching domestic leagues. Almost 120,000 fans flocked to see Lionel Messi along with his Argentinean team-mates for a friendly against Venezuela in September last year. The interest is there, the challenge however is turning that interest into developing a generation of talented footballers. The fundamental grass-roots development strategies are beginning to fall into place. Each side’s 30-man squad will not only include six under-21 Indian players, but also six players of any age who live local to the club, 14 others based anywhere within India, and of course four overseas players.
Undoubtedly the competition will create swirling dollar signs in the heads of those involved. However, it is obvious that there is an emphasis on helping the sport grow and improving the infra-structure in the country. While Venky’s may not be a good example thus far, Liverpool have spoken of setting up an academy in Delhi, while Manchester United chief executive David Gill has made no secret of his desire for the club to crack the Indian market. It all points to a bright future, one which can only benefit from the arrival of past superstars who will without question improve the standards of those around them.
Another argument is that these ‘icons’ are merely after one last big pay-day, an accusation Robert Pires faced up to, but explained what the additional motivation behind the adventure was for him.
"Since I had nothing in Europe, why not try something completely unknown? I've never been over there. I am proud to be the first Frenchman to go and play there. And eight weeks is nothing.
"If my (club) president likes me, it could be €790,000 ($1 million). It is a lot of money. I'm not going to complain about that am I? But I'm not going there as a tourist. It's a new adventure," he told L’Equipe.
While it’s perfectly natural to assume that this venture is all about money, much will depend on what the Indian Football Association and the young footballers take away from this experience. Equally, much will depend on the desire and willingness to help on the part of the former football stars, but channelled appropriately and with the right attitude from both parties, this could well crown the beginning of something very special for football in India.