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In Cricket Obsessed India, Football Tries to Gain a Following

FILE - Diego Fernando Nadaya (R) of Mumbai City FC fights for the ball with Jose Miguel Gonzalez Rey (2nd R) of Atletico de Kolkata during the opening match of the Indian Super League soccer tournament at Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, Oct. 12, 2014.

In India, a newly-launched football league is trying to win fans in a land where cricket holds undisputed sway. The league is wooing people with glitz, glamour and a sprinkling of international football players.

Indian football’s brief, glorious moment came nearly six decades ago, when it stood fourth in the 1956 Olympics. Since then the game has suffered a huge decline except in a handful of places like Kolkata and Goa, where local clubs command enthusiastic fan followings.

Now, the high-profile, eight-team Indian Super League (ISL) promoted by business magnates, top Bollywood stars and cricket celebrities is trying to revive the game at home.

Indian Super League's ambitions

The ISL's plan is simple: place a handful of aging international football stars on the teams to entice the millions of young people who are avid followers of televised European League games to back their Indian version. The aim: to turn football into a lucrative, commercial venture similar to cricket, whose countrywide fan following has turned it into a multibillion dollar industry.

Well-known football commentator and writer Novy Kapadia says the football matches played over the last month have re-kindled interest in the game.

“It has brought the crowds back, at all the venues. And even in venues like Mumbai and Delhi which traditionally did not really support football big time, so that is a welcome sign. But of course a lot of these are this new generation of supporters, so many of them have come because of the enticement of glamorous names like Del Piero [Alessandro Del Piero] or Ljungberg [Fredrik Ljungberg]," he said.

Young football fans, like 29-year-old Gaurav Dhir in New Delhi, who are avid followers of international football, have taken note of the Indian Super League.

“It's good to see foreign talent coming to India and playing and it [ISL] is being marketed properly. The matches are fairly interesting, they are quite open and it's been fun so far. But you have to see in the future how the League takes shape,” said Gaurav Dhir.

Challenges ahead

Sports enthusiasts admit that huge challenges lie ahead. India’s national team is a dismal 158th in the world rankings. Sports infrastructure is poor. The country does not have a grassroots development program to nurture local football talent. And unlike cricket, the game has produced no iconic players.

And although the presence of glamorous Bollywood stars and cricket icons cheering on their teams at stadiums has attracted attention, many wonder if this will be enough to build a following for the Indian game.

Building an interest

Another young football fan, Dhruv Vohra in Mumbai, says he watched some ISL matches but could not sustain his interest because there were important English Premier League matches at the same time. So far, that is where his first loyalty lies.

“If I see that a lot of my friends, who played football in school and college, were able to participate in this event, or if not in this event, but at least have some practice sessions or coaching sessions with these guys, it would just kind of build up interest.”

Novy Kapadia says the Indian Super League is a step in the right direction, but admits that many questions remain. He says the crucial test will come in the next season.

“Will this younger crowd, [whose] attachment anyway is only to European clubs, will this then extend to Indian football is to be seen," said Kapadia. "Their standard is way above anything we can even dream of reaching…. What is encouraging is that football is coming up as the number two sport. But just now it is curiosity, excitement. Will this be sustained for second year, third year?"

That is the gamble team owners and sponsors have taken as they invest millions of dollars in the ISL. They are confident that although they may sustain losses for some time, they ultimately will be able to tap into a thirst for local football in a market of 1.2 billion people that has been called the “sleeping giant” of the world’s most popular sport.