NEW DELHI (AFP) – Just five weeks after a glitzy kickoff, India’s fledgling football league claims to be the most popular in Asia – even if the quality of matches and performances of its ageing stars have left fans underwhelmed.
Backed by some of the biggest names in business and sport, the inaugural league has lured a host of big-name internationals out of retirement to help India shed its image as the sleeping giant of world football.
Halfway through the competition, Indian Super League (ISL) organisers – citing the latest figures – claim 22,639 fans on average have packed stadiums for each match, while a total of 318 million viewers have watched on television.
“(The) Indian Super League has achieved the rare milestone of having registered the highest average stadium attendance for any football league in Asia, ahead of competitions such as China’s CSL, Japan’s J-League and South Korea’s K-League,” an ISL spokesman said. The figures mark “India’s arrival as a footballing nation to the world,” the spokesman added.
But on a smoggy night last week at the capital’s impressive Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, just 1,000-odd fans turned out to watch the bottom two teams – Delhi Dynamos and FC Goa – go head to head.
“It’s not the same as watching Arsenal play Chelsea, that’s for sure,” said 26-year-old computer college student Anindya Sharma, waving a handmade sign.
“But we should support our own league, our own Indian league,” he added, cheering with his friend in an empty stand.
Warming the Delhi bench, Italian great Alessandro Del Piero glumly watched his team get thumped 4-1.
The former Juventus striker described the league as a “big challenge”, adding he would reserve his judgement until after the tournament ended.
“Everyone at the moment is trying to pour as much effort as they can into the competition (to make it a success),” the 40-year-old told AFP.
Despite being the second most populous nation, India has long struggled in world football and currently stands at 159 – out of 208 countries – in the FIFA rankings. Cricket dominates on the subcontinent, and football at the grassroots level has long been neglected.
However, the English Premier and other European leagues are hugely popular on satellite TV, and passion for local teams has long existed in pockets of the country, especially in former British colonial capital Kolkata and ex-Portuguese colony Goa.