Sunday 18 March 2018 / 02:57 AM

Indian Super League stirs sleeping giant

While David Villa pulls on the Melbourne City jersey this weekend, his predecessor as ‘A-League marquee signing’ will be adding the final touches to preparations for his Delhi Dynamos debut in India. Alessandro Del Piero left Sydney FC after two seasons, where he scored 24 goals in 48 appearances and helped raise the profile of football in Australia. Now, it seems, he is hungry for another challenge.


With 1.2 billion people barely represented in the elite sector of the world’s most popular game, India is considered the largest untapped resource of footballing talent left on earth. While the channels are in place to identify talent in ‘privileged’ schools, there are few opportunities for the kids on the street to get noticed. This is where the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) hopes to make a difference. With the help of a collection of Indian businessmen, Bollywood stars, famous cricketers and established European football clubs, eight regional teams will assemble for the inaugural ISL, starting this weekend.


Managed by Harm van Veldhoven and supported by Dutch outfit Feyenoord, Del Piero’s Dynamos will run out on Tuesday in the 60,000-capacity Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to face FC Pune City. Former Juventus teammate and fellow 2006 World Cup winner David Trezeguet lines up for the visitors, along with 2004 European Championship winner Kostas Katsouranis, who also captained Greece during their 2014 World Cup campaign.


It is these home-based role models, and the homegrown players that will benefit from their arrival, that will give the kid on the street something realistic to aspire to. With Messi and Ronaldo on the mind, millions of youngsters are seduced by the international game, but they are in desperate need of superstars from closer to home to look up to.


Michael Chopra is one overseas star exploring his roots to play in the ISL. The English-born striker became the first footballer of Indian parentage to play and score in the EPL when he came off the bench to help Newcastle beat local rivals Sunderland in 2006.


Chopra will line up for the Kerala Blasters alongside player-manager David James (former Liverpool and England goalkeeper) in what is considered to be one of the weaker sides on paper. With Sachin Tendulkar and entrepreneur Prasad V. Potluri backing the franchise, there have been comparisons drawn with IPL’s Rajasthan Royals, who went from underdogs to inaugural champions in the world’s premier domestic cricketing competition.


Despite netting 95 goals in 288 English League games, Chopra was never picked to play for England. He is reportedly now willing to renounce his British Citizenship in order to hold an Indian passport and represent the national side.


Indian superstars must help this sleeping giant step up and walk in order to revitalise one of the oldest football associations on earth. To do so would boost the nation’s lowly ranking of 158, where they are sandwiched between Puerto Rico and Thailand, and ensure sustained investment. With one-sixth of the world’s population living in India, this is the final untapped frontier of talent for football’s top table.


Prior to the advent of the ISL, the sport lacked infrastructure to provide a platform for the pockets of potential that hide among the poorer population. With the injection of foreign – and domestic – investment, football will no longer have to scrap for the estimated 10 per cent of funding that remains after India’s second religion, cricket, has sucked sports funding dry. That money must reach out to grass roots – and not just privileged roots. Dustbowls, slums and garbage-littered streets need the investment of time too.


Numerous ‘superpowers’, including Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have announced talent initiatives to try an uncover the intensity, fervour and dedication that has gone under the radar for too long. They will look to the big names kick-starting the ISL to encourage and nurture talent.


Luis Garcia (Liverpool and Spain) will run out for Atlético de Kolkata, the first official franchise to be announced. They have benefitted from investor and international cricket star Sourav Ganguly, alongside Atlético Madrid, and others. Former international midfielder and EPL manager Peter Reid is in charge of their first opponents Mumbai City, who boast prolific ex-Arsenal stars Fredrik Ljungberg and Nicolas Anelka.


Spanish World Cup winner Joan Capdevilla became North East United’s marquee signing when he joined from Espanyol to play for former New Zealand All Whites manager Ricki Herbert. Meanwhile Brazilian legend Zico is the boss at FC Goa, and Italian World Cup winner Marco Materazzi takes his first management role at Chennaiyin FC. That final round one match-up will pitch Goa’s Robert Pirès against his former French teammate Mikaël Silvestre and Brazilian midfielder Elano of Chennaiyin.


The 61 matches that will run from October 12th to December 20th, culminating in a Grand Final, will hopefully provide a platform for this sleeping giant to arise and step into the world of 21st-century football. For too long it has lain dormant, introverted and isolated.

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Tom Pountney

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