I-League looking to take next step
© AFP

With 47 per cent of its 1.2 billion inhabitants happy to describe themselves as football fans, India would appear fertile ground for a professional league. The country likewise boasts a rich and growing reserve of licensed players - the 765,000 listed last year is double the tally in 2006 - and yet India's football championship is still struggling to find its feet. Last overhauled in 2007, the competition has trouble enticing sponsors and attracts limited television audiences, while the stadiums themselves often fail to sell out.

The situation is difficult to comprehend given the passion many Indians feel towards the sport. Not only do Kolkata derby matches regularly draw up to 100,000 spectators, for example, but national team players are feted as stars and player salaries are among the highest in Asia. So why is the I-League experiencing such difficulty making its mark? In a quest for answers and potential solutions, FIFA.com met with some of the leading figures in the Indian game in New Delhi.

When FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter visited India in March this year, he spoke of "a continent rather than a country", a description inspired by the sheer scale of the place and its population. That size works to India's clear benefit in a multitude of domains, but it has proved far less advantageous to the nation's football championship.

As the I-League's CEO, Sunando Dhar, explained: "Three big cities – Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai – each have four clubs in the I-League. That's 12 out of a total of 14 clubs in the top flight, which doesn't help give a 'national' feel to the league. The north, south and centre of the country are not represented at all at the moment, and the promotion system leaves little chance for clubs from these regions to improve and reach the top tier."

It is a popular point of view, and one shared by the Secretary General of the Indian Football Association (AIFF), Kushal Das. "We're looking into solutions to improve the visibility and viability of the Indian championship," he said. "For the moment, the I-League is too focused on certain regions, whereas it should stretch across the whole of India."

45ºC in the shade
The other major problem for the I-League is the issue of infrastructure, which is far from ideal. "The stadiums don't belong to the clubs, who have to rent them from the authorities," said Dhar. "That means that, even if it's a priority for them, the clubs don't control what happens to them and they have no control over their maintenance."

FIFA's Win in India with India programme has made it possible to build four artificial pitches (in Mumbai, Shillong, Imphal and Bangalore), with two more on the way (Goa and Kolkata), but those efforts hardly compensate. Crucially, in fact, just two stadiums are equipped with sufficient floodlighting for matches to be played at night. "The infrastructure issue is a real challenge," explained Das. "In December, the renovation work on the Mumbai Cooperage Stadium, to which FIFA contributed, will be complete."

It may seem like a minor detail, yet the question of floodlighting is charged with significance, as East Bengal and India striker Robin Singh made plain. "In the I-League, the time of day we play games at makes all the difference. In the middle of the afternoon, it can get as hot as 45ºC in India, which isn't good for us and the standard of play, isn't good for the fans in the stadium and isn't a good time for television. Just by changing that, I believe the league would gain in popularity and quality."

"It's also true that not all the matches are shown on television," added Subrata Pal, goalkeeper for Prayag United and the Indian national team, not to mention a veritable star in his homeland. "Just a few games involving the clubs from Goa and Kolkata get shown."

Those most closely associated with Indian football also point to a lack of training facilities. "We haven't been able to establish an efficient training system in the past," said Das. "Thanks to FIFA's Goal programme, we're now setting up training centres and we've established a complete development structure." As for Dhar, he also highlighted FIFA's role, though he feels that responsibilities need to be shared. "FIFA has helped us open regional academies and that's a good thing. But in football's developed nations, the responsibility for that falls on the clubs, and that's how it should be in India too."

The logic is certainly seductive: good training facilities means good players, which in turn means more locals venturing to games or tuning in at home, as opposed to having their heads turned by the major European leagues. "In addition to training, we have to be able to attract world-class players like Robert Pires and Hernan Crespo, who were both said to be on their way a few months back," added Dhar. "If these players coming in are properly publicised, the league's popularity would be given a very quick boost." The CEO is currently pushing, along with the I-League's partner IMG-Reliance, to set up a system of franchises sponsored and managed by businesses.

Genuine enthusiasm
Given these efforts and developments behind the scenes, it would obviously be foolish to write off the I-League just yet. It could be set for a bright future, in fact, considering the genuine enthusiasm for the sport within the country. "Indian youngsters watch more football than cricket on television," explained Das, while around 100 million Indians followed the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ on their screens.

What the game needs now, everyone seems to agree, is a spark to ignite the interest of young people in the local championship. A few notable wins on the international stage would undoubtedly help in that direction, and, as if on cue, the national team claimed an eye-catching victory against Cameroon in the Nehru Cup a few days ago. "That win will help," said Pal. "The stadium was almost full for the final in Delhi and Indians watched the games on television in their droves. That's obviously positive for Indian football and the league can benefit from that popularity."

The I-League would similarly gain from the hosting of a major international tournament on Indian soil, and the minds of many officials are already turned to the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017. "Organising the FIFA U-17 World Cup will be an excellent springboard for Indian football, without a doubt," said Singh. "Firstly, it will help our country be recognised throughout the football world as capable of hosting such a tournament. In addition, it will provide the significant media exposure that we need. And it will also allow the country's youngsters to take their place on the world stage."

What is certain is that everyone feels the time for change has come, and all are investigating possible avenues of improvement. "The current situation isn't ideal," said Dhar. "Now is the time to change things, but not to the detriment of the clubs, football or organising bodies like the AIFF, AFC and FIFA. That's why the 'Task Force for Indian Professional Football' set up by FIFA is vital in terms of pooling our knowledge and experience and finding the best solution."

Thierry Regenass, FIFA's Director of Member Associations and Development, could not agree more. "This Task Force will allow the clubs, federation, league, commercial partners, AFC and FIFA to examine the situation in detail. We'll send specialists over to give the best possible advice. It's important to find a consensus; that's our priority and we're working towards that end."