NEW DELHI -- Cricket is practically synonymous with sports in India, but it is about to get some competition in the form of the country's first serious professional football league.
The Indian Super League, or ISL, has kicked off and is the talk of the nation. The live telecast of the opening match on Oct. 12 drew 74.7 million viewers, an order of magnitude larger than the typical sporting event. Over the first week, the total audience for the new league was reported to be 170 million. The media and fans are asking whether India could become an emerging football nation on a par with China and the U.S.
An executive with FIFA, international soccer's governing body, visited India in mid-October. In an interview with local media, he pointed to India's huge population as proof the country could support two major professional sports. He believes ISL has a fair chance of grabbing the attention of some of the country's 1.2 billion people who are not devoted exclusively to cricket.
Media company Star India and an affiliate of conglomerate Reliance Industries, were a co-founders of ISL. Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani, the country's richest man, has said there is new and widespread enthusiasm for football since the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which points to the game's potential as a cash cow.
Match tickets at large stadiums in India sell for 100-3,500 rupees ($1.76-$61.57). This makes watching a live professional match much cheaper than in most of the rest of the world: 100 rupees buys five or six cups of coffee in a typical Indian cafe. "People under 20 are the most familiar with football, and ticket prices are set to be affordable for them," said an ISL spokesman. By contrast, tickets for Indian Premier League pro cricket matches are more expensive, costing up to 12,000 rupees, and venues are always packed.
For the inaugural season, ISL is putting top priority on making the matches fun to watch, essentially requiring its clubs to hire foreign players. The money teams are splashing out has attracted many international stars of the pitch who are admired by fans worldwide but have passed their prime.
Former Italian national team member Alessandro Del Piero, for instance, joined the Delhi Dynamos Football Club on a contract paying 110 million rupees ($1.64 million). Former French national star Robert Emmanuel Pires and Swedish peer Fredrik Ljungberg, who once played for the Shimizu S-Pulse in the Japan Professional Football League, or J.League, have laced up their cleats for Indian clubs.
The same is true for coaches. Brazilian superstar and former head coach of the Japan national team Zico now skippers FC Goa. He said he did not come to India as a tourist, but to introduce the Japanese football model and help raise the technical skills of Indian football players.
But the ISL has a long way to go if it is to foster serious Indian football talent. The country's FIFA ranking is currently 159th out of 209 members worldwide. It is reportedly bidding to host the FIFA World Cup in 2026. Just as J.League raised the quality of Japanese national squad, the ISL may do the same for India. Traditional football powers may not have much to fear yet, but that could change.