India could have invited Jon Hamm to mastermind a “Million Dollar Feet” contest. Instead the country has started up the Indian Super League, which seems like a more realistic way of unearthing soccer talent in the cricket-obsessed nation of 1.2 billion.
Frequent references to the U.S. as soccer’s last great untamed wilderness tend to ignore India’s size (massive) and overall contribution to world soccer (negligible). And while plenty of Chinese are passionate about soccer, especially the EPL, that’s another global giant that has had scant international influence on the sport.
Put the populations of China and India together and you get 2.6 billion people, more than a third of the total on Earth today, yet combined these countries have lately produced fewer decent footballers than the city of St Louis. India is currently 158th in the FIFA world rankings, once place below Puerto Rico. China is 97th, behind Qatar, Bolivia and Rwanda.
Can the Super League change the dynamic in India? The long-delayed eight-team competition started on Sunday and runs for just ten weeks. Influenced by the brash style of cricket’s Indian Premier League, there are some powerful and familiar backers (hello, Rupert Murdoch! Hi, IMG!). Teams are owned by the likes of property tycoons, Bollywood actors, and Indian cricketing superstar Sachin Tendulkar.
They’ve taken a page from the playbook of cash-rich Middle Eastern leagues by waving banknotes under the noses of has-been former internationals who were in their prime a decade ago.
Each team is a mix of Indians and imports, and each has an MLS-style Marquee (Designated) Player who they’ve plucked from a retirement home. FC Goa, coached by Brazilian legend Zico, has a 40-year-old Robert Pires. Delhi Dynamos trot out a 39-year-old Alessandro Del Piero. Mumbai City has former MLSer Freddie Ljungberg. It will surprise no one that the 37-year-old was injured for their first game, a 3-0 loss to Atlético De Kolkata, who are part-owned by Atlético Madrid.
FC Pune City are pinning their hopes on David Trezeguet, who’s about to turn 37, while 44-year-old former England goalkeeper David James is the player-manager of Kerala Blasters.
Whatever happened to quenelle-toting ex-France striker Nicolas Anelka? He’s in Mumbai being coached by former England midfielder Peter Reid.
Pretty strange stuff all in all. But if the players can keep producing goals like this, maybe it’s got a future.
In the words of the league’s chairperson, as she issues a rallying cry to fans while collecting stray balls from a hedge, “Come on, India. Let’s football.”
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