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Indian Football: What's All the Hullabaloo?

That a country of India's size and growing economic significance does not have a half decent football team is definitely food for thought... Many of the problems surrounding India's football development cohere around its cultural perception.

Did you know that Neil Taylor's mum is from Kolkata? Or that Michael Chopra has an Indian dad? These and other such tenuous links are about all I have to cling to when somebody asks me, "Why don't India have a football team?" Actually, I'm sure I saw Gazza eat a curry once.

The truth is they do have a team; it's just not a very good one. Their captain and all-time leading goal-scorer Sunil Chhetri is a former Sporting Lisbon reserve and 107 cap striker Baichung Bhutia managed 3 goals in 37 games for Bury back in the late 1990s. The majority of the Indian national side, however, is made up of a paltry cast of semi-pros.

So, in explaining Indian fans' readiness to follow other countries' football more closely, we needn't look much further. Still, that a country of India's size and growing economic significance does not have a half decent football team is definitely food for thought.

Is India's love for cricket detracting investment from other sports? Is Indian society still so tiered that it cannot promote an egalitarian game? These and many other questions have dogged my mind, never more so than during this summer's World Cup, when it occurred to me that while an entire nation is spending sleepless nights staying up to watch every game, Indians are supporting some second or even third team instead of their own.

Naturally, the roots of a poor national side rest firmly in the quality of its domestic league. While it could be argued that countries such as Brazil or Argentina have 'weak' domestic leagues because their top talent is routinely poached, it's worth considering that their clubs do indeed produce new talent every season. India's domestic football is not weak because it has its talent poached; rather, there is very little talent in the first place.

My harsh words are not intended to incite or offend, but simply diagnose. Many of the problems surrounding India's football development cohere around its cultural perception. Domestic football in India is seen as a quaint novelty for when there isn't any cricket on, an incidental "oh go on then" much like Frisbee on holiday or a kebab when pissed. Meanwhile, to pursue a career in professional sport that isn't cricket or traditional athletics carries its taboos. With Indian football so patently unglamorous, there's little prestige attached to playing even in the top leagues. Moreover, Indian parents often encourage their children to chase careers like medicine, accountancy or law because these are seen as signposts of education which is highly commoditised in Indian society. Equally, Indian football clubs are almost invariably underfunded as successive governments have considered sustaining success in cricket and hosting the Commonwealth Games as better symbols of India's international repute.

But as we well know, India's seeming reluctance to play football does not necessarily translate to a disinterest in the sport. While its domestic football appeal might be minimal, India is home to one of the largest fan bases for the English Premier League; and fans could be forgiven for wanting to watch Manchester United over say, Mohun Bagan. At the same time though, it seems unfair to expect Indian based players to be world-beaters when they play most of their games in front of half empty stadiums and don't have access to the same quality of coaching or training facilities.

In any case, that India can be so enamoured with foreign football yet so disengaged from its own remains one of the sport's most curious sub-plots.

For the newly formed Indian Super League (ISL), however, it appears that this cruel irony has been observed long enough. The latest subsidiary of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the ISL aims to raise the profile of Indian football on the international scene. Why it has taken so long for such a project to be launched baffles me, but it seems that those in charge have finally realised what a huge potential market there is on a sub continental scale.

The competition format is much like America's MLS, opting for a franchise system rather than promotion and relegation. Squad building and transfers will consist of controlled rosters with some interesting stipulations; each team must sign a marquee player, as well as seven other foreigners, while the remaining 14 members of the squad must be local players belonging to the given club's home city.

Former France and Juventus striker David Trezeguet is the latest big name to join the ISL movement, following the signings of fellow Frenchman Robert Pires and former Spain and Liverpool winger, Luis Garcia.

I must admit if someone had told me five years ago that David Trezeguet would one day ply his trade in India, albeit past it and in his 30s, I'd have laughed in their face. But after promising to bring in well-known players, the AIFF have really put their money where their mouth is. Although, I do wonder how long it'll be before one club cops out and goes for David Bentley.

Certainly, the shift to the ISL is encouraging in terms of improving domestic interest; and based on the signings so far, I can envisage India following the likes of Australia - a sunny safe-haven for aging former stars wanting to see out the twilight of their careers.

But whether the ISL movement will serve as saviour or saboteur for the national side is up for debate. While foreign players and marquees will probably augment interest in India's domestic league, it is very likely that their salaries will massively outstrip those of home-grown members of the squads. Unless the ISL strives towards wage parity, alacrity for Indians to pursue professional football as a career will remain low. The ISL must also work out how it is going to tackle India's perception of football at a cultural level, how can it shake tags of being a largely 'Western' game? And how will it go about improving the physical toughness of Indian players?

The ISL is due to launch this October and though I am excited by many aspects of the new league, I feel there are some cracks to be papered over if that target of 2026 World Cup Qualification is to be achieved. Until then, I dream of the day that I can watch India crash out in the group stage.

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