Will ISL and HIL help India do well internationally? (Column: Just Sport)

Footballers and hockey players feel they are seeing some “ache din” thanks to the pro-leagues in the two popular sports in the country, not taking cricket into consideration.

Are these leagues just a business promotion or are they taking country’s hockey and football to the next level? Both the leagues have seen crowds flocking to the stadiums, but the lurking danger is whether they go the Formula One way once the initial glamour wears off.

Brazilian greats Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos are out to do business in Asia and in the process, they think, the region could prosper. They are not apologetic about their staggering statements.

Ronaldo is planning to open 30 football schools in China pouncing on the idea of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a known football fan, wanting his country to develop into a world beater and also one day host the World Cup. The two-time World Cup winner feels China has mass base and determination and all they now need is right kind of training.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not expressed any particular liking for either football or hockey, cricket being his preferred sport as he was president of the Gujarat Cricket Association.

Ronaldo says apart from the business angle he is attracted by the sheer number of football fans and players in China and the government’s focus on the development of the sport.

How often have we in India heard such pious statements from big-time European clubs promising to open football academies in Kolkata, Goa and Delhi?

Right from now beleaguered FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, who famously stated some years ago that India was a sleeping giant, to every Tom, Dick and Harry visiting India has issued certificates of wealth and talent, but bemoaned the lack of basic infrastructure to execute the plans. Worse, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) still does not have its own academy, all they have is empty promises by the Goa government to allot land.

Now Roberto Carlos comes to join the ISL team Delhi Dynamos as player-coach and says his aim is to make India the champion team of Asia. The Brazilian stalwart has gone a step further by setting a deadline for his ambitious plan. He honestly believes within “one or two years Indian players will witness an evolution like never before.” Really? Some confidence, this!

As if to buttress the argument of Carlos, Elano Blumer, the highest scorer in the ISL last year, says having so many Brazilians in the tournament is a positive sign because it is going to improve the quality of Indian football.

Ask the hockey players turning out for the Hockey India League (HIL) and they, too, will tell you how it will benefit Indian hockey in the long run.

What do the two leagues mean to the humble football and hockey players?

This is best explained by hard-boiled football pro Sunil Chhetri.

Chhetri is not over-elated at his going down the hammer for Rs.1.2 crore. He said this isn’t the first time he has crossed the eight-figure mark as a pro. At 31, he thinks his parents know more about money and investments more than him.

HIL has come to stay with the hike in the purchasing power of the franchises in the third edition while there is still some confusion over the two pro football leagues, each questioning the soundness of the other.

In this festive season both the Hockey India League (HIL), in its third edition, and the second Indian Super League (ISL) are out to attract eyeballs. The healthy rivalry should help both and in the process if the Indian hockey and football benefit, nothing like it.

When it comes to payouts, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is unmatchable or so the market analysts perceived. But they did not reckon with the price the marquee players are valued in the ISL, even if they are no longer hot properties internationally.

While most overseas marquee players in ISL are paid upwards of close to Rs.5 crore when the top Indians are valued in lakhs, only a couple touchingly close to the eight-figure mark.

For instance, someone like Italian Alessandro Del Piero could command in his first season last year as much as say Mahendra Singh Dhoni does after six years in the IPL. That’s saying something for the universal popularity of football even if the cricketers are seen as demigods in India.

If Dhoni can boast of winning all the three ICC Cups in shorter formats and taking the Test side to the top of the heap, Del Piero’s credentials are no less impressive considering his achievements with his national and Italian club Juventus.

The biggest problem the AIFF is facing is how to merge the ISL and the I-League to make a more attractive property for football stars to get attracted like China is doing.

The jury is still out. Many top India footballers, including the iconic Bhaichung Bhutia, feel the I-League should be preserved and protected if Indian football has to survive. Their fear is ISL will soon become a haven for unwanted European stars. With six overseas players and five Indians in a line-up how is it going to help Indian football, they ask.

Reading the mind of the AIFF bosses, quite a few I-League clubs have shut their shops and some others likely to follow suit. Their argument is why should they pay the players so much for a three-month I-League and that, too, to a tired lot after a two month ISL? The AIFF may as well look to make ISL a 15-team round the year league as many overseas players want.

Hockey has no such worries. There is scope for increasing the number of teams and once Pakistani players also join the caravan, it will truly be a global league.

(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at v.srivatsa@ians.in)

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