Indians insist their cash-rich football circus can still fly high
Planning for a soccer equivalent to cricket's IPL has proved difficult, despite the game's popularity, says Andrew Buncombe in Delhi
It has been on, off and now, if the organisers are correct, it is back on again. Amid widespread scepticism from fans and analysts, officials behind a nascent football league in India, based on the hugely successful Indian Premier League cricket tournament, say they will this week announce the new start date for an event designed to lure some of international football's ageing stars to the subcontinent.
Argentine Hernan Crespo, 36, who played for Chelsea, and Italy's World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, 38, the so-called Berlin Wall, are among those who could take part.
"We will announce the new date [this] week," said Utpal Ganguli, secretary of the Indian Football Association, the organisation which oversees football in the state of West Bengal. "We are working on the logistics to make sure everything is in place."
The original vision for Premier League Soccer (PLS) as outlined by officials in West Bengal, one of the Indian states where football genuinely competes with cricket for fans, was for six franchises at venues within the state. At an auction for players held in January, around £4.5m was spent on half a dozen names whose best years were almost certainly behind them, among them Crespo (£535,000), Cannavaro (£530,000), Robert Pires (£510,000), Nigeria's Jay-Jay Okocha (£350,000) and Robbie Fowler (£350,000).
But almost immediately, the plan ran into problems. Firstly, the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), the body which oversees football at the national level, suspended PLS from taking part in Fifa's Transfer Matching System because the six new teams were not affiliated to the sport's governing body. While that issue was resolved and the suspension eventually lifted, the AIFF did not budge from another decision, in which it refused to allow Indian players from the official domestic I-League to join the event, saying that PLS was essentially a state-level tournament.
Officials also complained there was a shortage of venues for the six-week tournament, which was supposed to be launched on 24 March. While two pitches were up to scratch, the other four were not. There were accusations and counter-accusations. Eventually, on 21 February, officials announced that the tournament was being suspended.
The longer things get held up, the less likely are the chances of the tournament actually taking place. It appeared that Fowler was going to be the first to walk away from the confusion, when he was close to signing instead for Blackpool. But that deal fell through when the Seasiders could only offer the 36-year-old wages of £100 per week, plus a £5,000 appearance bonus.
Dharamdutt Pandey, the chief executive of Celebrity Management Group, which conceived the project, said last week that everything was now in order and that the group was just waiting for the new start date to be announced. He said that discussions were still ongoing with the representatives of the six internationals. "Things will be worked out once the dates are sorted out," he added.
But time and weather are not on the organisers' side. Even in April, the venues at Kolkata, Howrah, Durgapur, Siliguri, Barasat and Haldia, would have been hot and steamy. If the event takes place much later in the year, the conditions could be unbearable. It could even coincide with the monsoon.
Organisers are also aware that between 4 April and 27 May the fifth edition of the IPL will take place, luring away many potential fans and television viewers from the football event. "There are a lot of factors to be seen," admitted Ganguli, of the Indian FA.
The potential of PLS is clear. Despite India's well-earned reputation as a cricket-mad nation, the popularity of football has steadily been growing in the country, especially among the urban middle classes who often follow teams from Europe and the Premier League. One recent report said research by India's TAM Media had found that, between 2005 and 2010, viewing interest in football increased by 60 per cent and advertising volumes doubled. The same research suggested urban India now had 120 million cricket viewers and 83 million who watched football.
Along with Kerala, Goa and the north-east of India, West Bengal is one of the places where football has always staked a claim to the interest of fans. In Kolkata, a derby match between Mohun Bagan and their rivals, East Bengal, is considered one of the country's sporting highlights.
And if the tournament can manage even a slice of the revenues earned by the IPL it will be doing very nicely. In 2010, the UK-based brand consultancy Brand Finance valued the IPL at £3.1bn.
Yet a number of fans are doubtful things are going to come together. Saikat Saikat Bose, a member of the Mohun Bagan official supporters' club, said fans were frustrated by what they saw as a dispute between state and national bodies.
"I doubt that it's going to go ahead," he said. "People want to see it happen. The passion for the game is turning to turmoil. No one is benefiting."
A source linked to the national body, the AIFF, also expressed doubts about the tournament proceeding. "There are a plethora of problems," said the source, who asked not to be identified.
If PLS does not proceed as officials had hoped, it will not have been the first sports event to run into problems with India's bureaucratic and organisational hurdles.
The Commonwealth Games was the clearest example of how the country can struggle when organising major sporting events, but there have been many others.
Earlier this year, officials behind an IPL-style motor racing league deferred the competition to next year because of logistical problems.
Barasat Euro Musketeers
Owner: Uro Infra Realty India
Icon player: Hernan Crespo (£535k)
Coach: Teitur Thordarson
Owner: Aajay Consultants
Icon player: Fabio Cannavaro (£530k)
Coach: Marco Etcheverry
Owner: Camellia Group
Icon player: Robbie Fowler (£350k)
Coach: Peter Reid
Owner: Syncsys Infotech
Icon player: Robert Pires (£510k)
Coach: Fernando Couto
Durgapur Vox Champions
Owner: Tulip Infonet
Icon player: Jay-Jay Okocha (£350k)
Coach: Samson Siasia
Owner: Grey Mind Communications
Icon player: Juan Pablo Sorin (£310k)
Coach: John Barnes
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