Founded in 2013, the ISL (Indian Super League) has helped raise the standard of Indian domestic football and has one of the best average attendances of all the leagues in the world, and has attracted a large domestic audience.
At the same time, despite its growing popularity, it still has a long way to go before it can compete with the best leagues in Asia, let alone world football.
Measured using criteria such as the presence of top players, TV views and popularity, social media buzz, and the success of clubs from, the league in intercontinental competitions, it continues to lag some way behind regional rivals.
The history of football in India
Although India has a long and rich football history – the Durand Cup is the third oldest club competition in the world – for many years it was largely associated with the British colonial rules. Although the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was formed in 1893, it would be almost 40 years until there was a single Indian on its board.
One distinguishing feature from those early years is that Indian players for the national team insisted on playing barefoot, when other nations wore boots.
The years 1951 to 1962 are widely considered the golden era of Indian football. The Indian team won several tournaments, and, in 1956, reached the semi-finals of the football tournament at the Melbourne Olympics.
However, domestically the country struggled to organise the sport domestically, and it was only with the formation of the ISL – initially without official recognition from the AIFF – that concerted efforts were made to grow the sport In India.
Football fans in India
Although India is widely believed to be obsessed with cricket to the exclusion of almost all other sports, a poll conducted earlier this year revealed that there are 160 million football fans in India.
More than 18,000 Indian fans attended the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and it has been reported that more than 23,500 tickets have been bought by supporters who will be travelling to Qatar next month.
People watch European league and cup games in their tens of millions every week, and all major world clubs will have dedicated Indian supporters’ clubs.
In terms of world ranking, though, India still has a long way to go. Its men’s team are just the 106th ranked team according to FIFA, whilst the women come in at 58th. By comparison, the Japanese J League, the Australian A League (for footballing purposes Australian falls within Asia), the Chinese Super League, The South Korean, Saudi, Qatar and UAE Leagues all rank within the top 50.
Iraq, Oman, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Vietnam and Lebanon are just some of the many Asian countries whose men’s team is ranked higher. In Sunil Chhetri, India’s captain, they may possess one of the top international goalscorers of all time – he has 84 goals to his credit so far – but the reality is that the standard of Indian football is comparatively, not very good.
Earlier this year the funding of the AIFF was slashed by 85% with the reasons given being inadequate development of the game at grassroots level, a lack of structure in women’s football and the poor performance of the men’s team.
And then FIFA temporarily banned India from all international competitions – both for national and club teams – due to undue influence from third parties, after the Supreme Court appointed a Committee of Administrators to oversee the functions of the organisation.
The ban has since been lifted, but not before considerable reputational damage had been inflicted.
Initially in a bid to raise the profile of the ISL, teams had a policy of recruiting big name stars from Europe on the verge of retirement after one last pay day. They have now all gone, to be largely replaced by journeymen from the lower tier of European leagues, who were not good enough to succeed at home.
Clubs do not have the budgets to recruit more expensive talents and cannot compete with the riches available in the Middle Eastern leagues as well. And, with little prospect of success in Asian regional; tournaments, India is not a big draw in itself for players from overseas.
That is not to judge the situation hopeless. As ISL standards rise, better players will arrive and they will help raise the standards of home grown talent as well. But it will take years – there are no quick fixes to make the ISL one of the top leagues in Asia.
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