Twenty five-year-old Ishan Kaushik is waiting with baited breath for October 12. That’s when the much talked about eight-team Indian Soccer League will get underway; the ball will start rolling on the football turf. Ishan has been closely monitoring soccer leagues — the European soccer leagues in particular — for more than a decade now. He has been an ardent fan of Manchester United; has seen Cristiano Ronaldo dribble the football during his days at Old Trafford (he hates to miss the Portuguese winger in action even today); loved the way Paul Scholes dominated the mid-field. He watched former Red Devils goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar make one acrobatic save after another.
However, now, his priorities have changed, somewhat. Ishan says he will surely follow the Premier League, the La Liga and the Bundesliga. But the 25-year-old soccer buff is now ‘breathing, eating and sleeping’ ISL, literally.
“The Indian football scene had been drab and somewhat boring. I hope ISL will change things in as much the same way the cash-rich IPL revolutionized cricket, the country’s most-preferred sport,” he says.
“With the likes of Briton of Indian origin Michael Chopra, former Italian internationals Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi, former French stars Robert Pirès and David Trezeguet promising their association with ISL, the tournament should open a new chapter in the history of Indian football,” he adds.
And the icing on the cake, Ishan says, is North-east United, one of the eight franchisee teams that will feature in the much-hyped tournament. And he will be putting all his money on the “home team”.
Will ISL be like the Premier League? “Of course not,” says Pranjal Sarma, a Guwahati-based TV journalist and an avid soccer fan. “It’s just the beginning. We have miles to go before we can set such high standards. We lack infrastructure, training facilities and practically everything. So comparing ISL with the big European leagues is practically stupid,” he adds.
Apart from North-east United that will be headquartered in Guwahati, the other teams to feature in the tournament are Delhi Dynamos, Atletico de Kolkata, Mumbai City, Pune City, FC Goa, Chennai and Kerala Blasters.
Like IPL where the franchisee owners included Bollywood stars, media barons and corporate honchos, a few big names associated with ISL include cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, co-owners of Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata respectively and Bollywood stars John Abraham, Ranbir Kapoor, and Salman Khan who won the bidding for the Guwahati, Mumbai, and Pune franchises respectively.
Australian Ricki Herbert, the head coach of North-east United, is excited about the tournament and hopes it will take Indian Football to the global stage.
Amid the hype and the hoopla surrounding ISL, there are many football fans who are apprehensive about the success of the tournament. Tonoy Chakraborty, a 30-something corporate professional, is unsure whether the tournament can help Indian football reach dizzy heights as has been talked about.
“Forget about ISL rubbing shoulders with the European leagues, I doubt if we can match the standards set by countries like Japan, Korea, or even Malaysia and Thailand. IPL’s success was built on the craze Indians have for cricket, and the existing pool of talents the country has. Cricketing infrastructures were more or less at par with international standards. Football, unfortunately, has nothing to flaunt,” he quips with a sigh.
And the debate continues. The more optimistic ones are keeping their fingers crossed and are hoping for the best to happen on the football field while the second lot —- the somewhat apprehensive section — isn’t that sure about ISL’s success. But take one thing for granted that all eyes will be glued to the television sets once Indian Soccer League kicks off. At least Ishan, Pranjal and other football fans definitely will.
(Tonmoy Borkotoky is a Guwahati-based journalist.)