On the eve of the first-ever final of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014, a young, highly-rated defender, Sandesh Jhinghan, who was playing for Kerala Blasters, said that it’s the first time there’s going to be so much focus on him. And it’s also the first time that he’s being treated like a total professional.
Though his team lost to Atletico de Kolkata, courtesy a late header by Mohammed Rafique, Jhinghan knew that it wasn’t time to rue a final loss. It was time to be excited, reinvent and more importantly, work hard. Football was finally in the limelight.
It wasn’t as accepted as it is today though. There was more scepticism than optimism when the initial idea of having a private league came about. ‘How could there be a league when the I-League is already there? What’s the use of having a short tournament?’ were the initial questions raised. The I-League clubs were the most critical of the league. One could understand their apprehension though. How could they suddenly be relegated to the second tier of Indian football?
Reliance and IMG, the organisers of the tournament though, went about their business without paying much attention to the critics. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) gave them the support they needed. The road was clear.
Before we go ahead, here’s a little history about how IMG-R forayed into Indian football:
About seven years ago, AIFF signed a deal with IMG-RIL worth INR 700 crores roping in IMG-R as “commercial partner.” The agreement with AIFF granted IMG-RIL all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. IMG-RIL would also look at scheduling, restructuring and reformatting of the domestic competitions. In addition, IMG Reliance planned to develop, operate and administer a new professional football league in the country (ISL in 2014).
Under the agreement, for the five years, IMG-RIL would give money to AIFF under the same terms and conditions that AIFF had with Zee Sports. In the next 10 years, IMG-RIL would pay AIFF an annual amount of INR 50 crore or 20% of the revenue whichever is more. IMG-RIL has also given a buyout amount of INR 70 crore to Zee Sports to exit from the agreement five years before expiry.
The first year started off with a bang. Big names like David James, Freddie Ljungberg, Alessandro del Piero, Elano, Luis Garcia and Robert Pires were signed as marquee players. Bollywood stars were roped in as brand ambassadors/co-owners of franchisees.
It was a festival of sorts. The two-month tournament broke TV viewership and stadium attendance records in the first year itself. For example, Mumbai FC’s I-League home games at the Cooperage Stadium in Colaba drew a crowd of just about 4000. Mumbai City FC’s home games at the DY Patil Stadium in Nerul saw an average spectator count of more than 26,000.
There was only a little improvement in the quality of football though. The short length of the league (2 months) was criticised by both managers and players. The players had less time to recover from games and managers didn’t have the time to see their philosophy in effect.
Players marvelled at the way they were being taken care of. They had round-the-clock physios, to sports psychologist to nutritionists. There was nothing lacking. For most it was a complete change, and they weren’t complaining, mind you.