“Ronaldinho? To India? Is he playing cricket these days?”
That was one of the responses posted online to the news that Ronaldinho had an offer on table to come play in India. Justifiably so, for cricket has dominated the country's sporting scenario for the better part of the last three decades.
This was the land where the impoverished father would save that last bit of wood from the stove, to fashion into a makeshift bat for his son - a future Indian captain in his eyes. Sachin Tendulkar was God, captain MS Dhoni was more popular than the Prime Minister and current batting sensation Virat Kohli had more female fans than Bollywood film stars.
Contrast that to the state in which the country's football team finds itself in. Most of India's football fans, who'll tell you the names of Manchester United or Liverpool reserve squad members, will struggle to tell you who plays left-back for the national team.
While Tendulkar can't go anywhere in the country without a contingent of bodyguards, IM Vijayan, arguably India's greatest footballer of modern times, walks around unmolested and unrecognised in his hometown, apart from the occasional knowing smile from people who remember his face from the newspapers. The Kolkata derby between the two oldest clubs in the country - East Bengal and Mohun Bagan - still manages to attract almost 80,000 spectators every year, but the I-League - the country's top flight league with a different number of teams each year - has an average attendance of just over 5,000.
It's not that Indians don't care about football. Millions tune into watch English Premier League and La Liga matches every weekend, while the recently-held World Cup in Brazil was second only to its cricketing version in TV numbers. Clubs sell replica jerseys like hotcakes and a friendly between Argentina and Venezuela held in the 100,000-capacity Salt Lake stadium drew a full-house.
It's not that Indians don't care about football. Indians just don't care about Indian football! And why should they? When your team is ranked 150th in the world and losing regularly to the likes of war-torn Afghanistan and tiny Maldives, it takes more than the national colours to get people to care. But all that may be about to change. And the inspiration for that change, curiously, has come from cricket itself. Seven years ago, a revolutionary concept was launched in the country that allowed the Board of Control for Cricket in India to build up their financial muscles so much that they now rule world cricket with an iron fist. The Indian Premier League would see the best cricketers of the world rub shoulders, while playing for Major League Soccer-style franchises. The concept was an instant hit and now has an estimated brand value of $3.2 billion.
Fast forward to the present and the Indian Super League is about to kick off. The three-month tournament is an experiment unlike any ever conducted in world football, but the brains behind it are as familiar as it can get. Fruition of an idea came when Sports Management giant International Management Group (IMG) joined hands with Reliance - one of the largest conglomerates in India - to form an entity which then signed a 700-crore-rupee ($116 million) deal with the All Indian Football Federation. The deal gave IMG-Reliance all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights for the next 15 years. This was back in 2010.
As the new league writhed in its birth pangs, IMG-Reliance was joined by another behemoth of a partner - Rupert Murdoch's Star India network. With IMG capable of recruiting the required players and Star, with four of the most-watched sports channels in India - capable of providing broadcast, the coast was clear to launch the Indian Super League. A franchise auction was held where corporate giants and consortiums bid for eight teams based out of eight cities. The results of the auction were the stuff of PR genius. Sachin Tendulkar, India's best ever cricketer, part-owned one of the teams, while another was bought by a consortium that included Sourav Ganguly, fondly remembered as one the country's most successful cricket captains and Spanish giants Atletico Madrid. The remaining teams all had Bollywood actors or corporate giants at the forefront. In one swift move, the Indian Super League had secured sporting credibility, glamour and, of course, bucket loads of money.
IMG-Reliance had already signed the required domestic players a full year before the tournament was to begin, but it was with the announcement of the foreign players that the Indian Super League began to grab the headlines. First came Luis Garcia - him of the unlikeliest Liverpool team ever to win the Champions League. After that there was Joan Capdevila, who played every minute of the 2010 World Cup for eventual winners Spain. Then it started to pour. David James (MBE, as everybody is constantly reminded) was signed up, followed by French striker David Trezeguet. Michael Chopra, who alongside Vikash Dhorasoo is one of the only two European footballers of Indian-origin that most Indians have heard of, signed soon and then came the big one - Juventus and Italy legend - Alessandro Del Piero. The icing on the cake was when one of the franchises announced that they were in talks with Ronaldinho. The buck-toothed one eventually ended up not signing, opting instead for Mexico, but team officials have now turned their attention to the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Marco Materazzi.
Joining the superstars will be an assortment of players, collected seemingly at random, from 15 countries. Most were relatively unheard of, but for Indian football fans who had to make do with decades of watching random Africans and Brazilians dominate their league, this was manna from heaven.
Dissenting voices were heard when the concept of Indian Super League was first announced and, although having dimmed significantly following the arrival of Del Piero & co, continue to be heard. Prominent amongst them was that of Indian coach Wim Koevermans, who argued (quite correctly) that having fifty of his players remain inactive for nine months did not make his job any easier. Then there were those who argued that the ISL would hasten the demise of the I-League, which boasted bits of history (its oldest club Mohun Bagan was founded 3 years before Liverpool) and even rarefied bits of professionalism (current champions Bengaluru FC has 'Premier League standard' facilities according to former Wolves coach Malcolm Purchase).
The other side of the argument was that if the I-League, after nearly two-decades of existence under various names, was yet to throw up an Indian team, capable of breaking into the top-100 in FIFA rankings, then what was wrong with it being dismantled? David James is already lounging about in the southern city of Kochi where his team Kerala Blasters will be based. The capital city Delhi is all set to welcome Del Piero while the tourist hotspot of Goa has thrown its beaches open for Brazilian legend Zico, who will manage their franchise. Meanwhile fans in Chennai are waiting expectantly to find out who their marquee player is.
It is against this unreal backdrop that the Indian Super League will kick off in mid-October. It may be the long-awaited deliverance of Indian football, or it may end up doing nothing at all, but it sure promises to be one hell of an entertaining ride!
Vishnu is on Twitter @visheprasad.