1-6: India is In the Game

 
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supriya nair

When the World Cup begins, the absence of just two countries will mean that over a third of the global population will not be represented. India and China are not traditional football powers, but in recent years they’ve become huge and lucrative markets for the sport. In this episode, writer Supriya Nair talks about the new middle-class popularity of the Premier League in India, the clunky attempts to revamp the Indian domestic game, and her own private ritual of staying up until 3am to watch her favorite team: Italy's AC Milan.

About the guest
Supriya Nair is a journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes a column about intersections of sport and culture called "The Halfway Line" which appears weekly in the Mumbai Mirror. She is the editor of The Caravan Book Of Profiles and her work has appeared in Wisden, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. She’s on Twitter at: @supriyan.

 

words from the host

In this week’s show, my guest Supriya Nair draws a lot of interesting connections between cricket and football in India. In particular, she talks about the ways in which the Hero Indian Super League, commonly known as the  ISL — the country’s made-for-television, ten-team football tournament — modelled itself on the phenomenally successful Indian Premier League, or IPL — one of the world’s richest cricket tournaments. In part this is a matter of style: presentation, music, and the intense festive spirit that Indians call tamasha. It’s also a matter of structure and economics.

Like the IPL, the ISL was not created from already-existing clubs and teams, but offered wealthy backers the chance of new ten-year franchises for $25 million a pop. To try and reach football fans in India, the organizers cultivated three constituencies that would ensure, if not the league’s success, then at least a few years of blanket media coverage. Cricketers have been prominent, including three ex-captains of the national team: Sachin Tendulkar taking part ownership of the Kerala Blasters, Sourav Ganguly at ATK (formerly Atletico de Kolkata), and MS Dhoni at Chennaiyin. 

They have been joined by a raft of Bollywood stars, producers, and fixers: heartthrob John Abraham took on NorthEast United himself, Hrithik Roshan bought into Pune City, while Chiranjeevi, an old-school screen idol and regional politician, bought into Kerala. Money has come in the shape of companies like GMS shipping, owners of Delhi Dynamos, and industrialists like Nimmagadda Prasad, at Kerala, and Jaydev Mody, the casino king of Goa. 

Wages by global standards have been modest, but enough to bring in an eclectic if elderly selection of stars like Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, David Trezeguet and Diego Forlan. 

What really struck me, watching the league’s opening ceremony in 2014, was something unique to Indian football. The ISL was launched with the presentation of owners and coaches, to a crowd that cheered wildly at the improbable sight of Sachin Tendulkar and David James jogging out together in the kit of the Kerala Blasters. The transferable power of celebrity, true everywhere, seems particularly strong in India, even from cricket to football.

In its first week in 2014, the ISL pulled in over forty million viewers, within sight of the figures recorded by the IPL. So they were doing something right. But for a taste of a less celebrity-driven fandom in India, the most vital of India’s new fan cultures emerged in Karnataka at Bengaluru FC, a club founded in 2013 by local firm JSW Group. The club won the title in its first season in the I-league, the ISL’s older and less glamorous counterpart. The club has also acquired India's largest and noisiest organized supporters group, the West Block Blues. As one member of the group explained, ”I always found it very hard to connect with a European club. When I heard that a new club was being formed, it was like the answer to my prayers because for a long time I wished there were a professional football club that was local to me, which I could go and watch every week.” 

You can watch them in action here:

 

episode gallery

 Celebrations at the opening ceremony of the Indian Super League at Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Stadium in October 2014.  Photo by Subhendu Ghosh/Hindustan Times

Celebrations at the opening ceremony of the Indian Super League at Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Stadium in October 2014. Photo by Subhendu Ghosh/Hindustan Times

 Sachin Tendulkar, former cricket captain and co-owner of the ISL's Kerala Blasters, plays football during an India Nets Session at the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in March 2011.  Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar, former cricket captain and co-owner of the ISL's Kerala Blasters, plays football during an India Nets Session at the Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in March 2011. Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

 Bollywood star John Abraham is a co-owner of the ISL's NorthEast United FC. He's one of several local celebrities to buy in to the League.  Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Bollywood star John Abraham is a co-owner of the ISL's NorthEast United FC. He's one of several local celebrities to buy in to the League. Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

 Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Indian Super League in Kolkata in 2014. In its first week, the ISL pulled in over forty million viewers.  Photo by Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Indian Super League in Kolkata in 2014. In its first week, the ISL pulled in over forty million viewers. Photo by Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto

 Fans of the I-League's Mohun Bagan FC after a two-year ban on the club was lifted.  Photo by Subhankar Chakrabortty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Fans of the I-League's Mohun Bagan FC after a two-year ban on the club was lifted. Photo by Subhankar Chakrabortty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

 Fans eagerly await the arrival of Italian football player Alessandro Del Piero in New Delhi in 2014. Piero played for ISL's Delhi Dynamos FC in the team's inaugural year.  Photo by Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Fans eagerly await the arrival of Italian football player Alessandro Del Piero in New Delhi in 2014. Piero played for ISL's Delhi Dynamos FC in the team's inaugural year. Photo by Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

 Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra and her dance troupe performed during the ISL opening ceremony in 2014.  Photo by Subhendu Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra and her dance troupe performed during the ISL opening ceremony in 2014. Photo by Subhendu Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

 Ranti Martins of the I-League's East Bengal celebrates with teammates after scoring against Shillong Lajong FC during a match in 2016.  Photo by Subhendu Ghosah/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ranti Martins of the I-League's East Bengal celebrates with teammates after scoring against Shillong Lajong FC during a match in 2016. Photo by Subhendu Ghosah/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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