The Marquee Stars of the Indian Super League

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For budding football leagues, particularly leagues attempting to blossom in Asia, bums-on-seats are a priority. In our country, for example, when the A-League was launched Dwight Yorke wafted around the pitch for Sydney FC, winning the inaugural title with them, and the Joe Marston Medal for being the grand final’s best player, then, no doubt, hit the Sydney nightclubs like an obese uncle euphorically winning a local bellyflop contest. Yorke stayed for a season, earned a cool million, then left, but his impact on the immediate popularity of the league was tangible; 6 of the top 9 attendances involved Sydney FC (though their being the biggest and most marketable club also had something to do with it). He was the first, and as the A-league aged, the marquee culture persisted, some players older than others, some staying longer than others, and some more impressive than others. Benito Carbone was a sunny presence in his four games for Sydney. Robbie Fowler played quite well for two A-League teams, North Queensland and Perth. Romario’s five games in 2006 were a hilarious highlight, though the sight of the portly Brazilian legend tottering around the field wasn’t particularly good for the league’s legitimacy.

The prominence of the marquee culture in Australia, and its effects, both positive and negative, can be debated, but under the culture the A-League’s attendance figures have been steady, rising and falling accordingly as new teams have been introduced and withering clubs have been culled. If an argument can be made that David Villa’s impending five game sojourn signals the leagues arrival at the very height of farce, then it’s equally possible to argue that the presence of Alessandro del Piero has been nothing short of blindingly rewarding for the sport in Australia. Marquees are necessary to crack a fresh football market, but does it follow that the more ridiculously over-the-hill the player holding up the shirt, the bigger the crowds?

We’ll see in 17 days. The Indian Super League is scheduled to kick off in just over two weeks. In a nation where cricket is so firmly entrenched as the primary sport to play, India attempted to professionalise a domestic football league in 2007, with the formation of the two-tiered I-League. The league was fledgling, and football was still a very distant second behind cricket in terms of popularity and exposure. Then in 2010, rumblings began to sound hinting that a franchise-system football league was being put together, which, like the successful Indian Premier cricketing League, would add a dose of glitz to the equation. Announced, and then postponed, then finally confirmed last year, the ISL is about to commence, yet still faces a stiff battle to compete in the sporting marketplace. So, they too have utilised the marquee concept. Some of the names expected to line up for that opening clash: Champions League winner Luis Garcia, formerly of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Liverpool, aged 36. The Spaniard is now a Atlético player once again, except that it’s not the one he spent a single season at in 2002, the club that just won the Spanish title, it’s the Atlético based in Kolkatta, the capital of West Bengal. Appearing for Atleti’s opening day opponents, Mumbai City FC, will be Sweden and Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg. City is also managed by former Manchester City (and many others) manager, Peter Reid. They aren’t the only ageing stars to have been recruited, it’s actually quite a list.

Robert Pires, David Trezeguet, David James, Joan Capdevila, Mikael Silvestre, Marco Materazzi, Nicholas Anelka, Elano and our own adopted son, del Piero, join Garcia and Ljungberg as the inaugural ISL season marquee stars. Also managing in the ISL along with Reid is Brazilian icon Zico, Serie A journeyman manager Franco Colomba, and former Wellington Phoenix and All-Whites manager Ricki Herbert. Not the A-League, nor the Chinese Super League, not even the flushed MLS can boast as eye catching a set of marquees. The group contains 27 major European league titles, a couple of World Cups and multiple Champions Leagues. The thing is, is that these triumphs were all some time ago, quite some time in fact. Ljungberg came out of his 2 year retirement to join the Mumbai franchise. David James is 44, and is the Kerala Blasters player-manager.

One wonders what the rival I-League makes of this immense, gaudy dog-and-pony show. They, technically still the primary professional Indian league, have Leo Bertos and Josh Walker as the star attractions. Yes, me neither. Bertos played in the A-League for Perth and Wellington, and Walker, only 25, came over from Middlesbrough. 75 I-League matches a season are broadcast on TEN in India. They will be playing in near pitch-black shade in 17 days time.

Let me quote from the CEO’s letter on the ISL website:

The Hero ISL is primed to deliver a holistic football experience unlike any other witnessed in India so far, with a heady mix of top-quality Indian footballers complimenting a wide array of international players of global repute.

And then:

The foundations of the Hero ISL are strong and built to sustain and augment long-term growth in the sport … With the amount of effort and planning that has gone into engendering a world class football league, I am confident that we will be successful in capturing the imagination of India’s football-loving public.

The letter ends with the highly naff call to arms; “Come on India, let’s football!” The respective reputations of the ISL marquees, on a global scale, are probably pretty glowing, though not as actual players of course, more as fond memories. Only the most high-octane, grade-A football hipster would have known that David Trezeguet was on loan at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina last season, most general football fans (not to mention Indian fans) would have had no idea, remembering the striker as a youngster winning the World Cup in 1998, and then losing it in 2006, or from his time at Juventus, which ended nearly 5 years ago. The most relevant player of the bunch, apart from our lovely Alessandro, is Nicholas Anelka, poisonous dressing room presence and gesticulating anti-semite. The Indian player taken as Kolkata’s number one pick in the domestic player draft, Cavin Lobo, was cherry-picked from I-League team East Bengal, as was their second pick. It makes the CEO’s pledges of “long-term growth” ring a little hollow, which of course is unsurprising; the ISL is a business venture, nothing more, and this earnestness simply is part of the sales pitch. If the organisers were really concerned with growing football in India, they would have supported the national league already in place in some way, not created a Frankenstein’s monster to compete with it, Boris Karloff wearing tinted aviators, an Ed Hardy tee, picking his teeth with a designer toothpick and gesturing the Quenelle.

Of course it’s a money-grab, why would these stars come out of retirement and travel halfway across the world if there wasn’t money in it, for everyone involved? As despicable and hollow as it is, it is difficult to argue with the effect, I mean, I do want to see how Marco Materazzi does as Chennaiyin FC player-manager, and I will be googling Pires’s highlights. At the very least, when David Villa turns out for Melbourne City, likely surly and impatient for his new New York City life to start, we can turn to a nearby Asian ‘league’ that has taken the concept of the marquee to grotesque new levels, and be comforted by the fact that at least we’re not there, yet.

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