The Plastic Checkmate: ISL Wins by Sheer Math

Monday, 20 October 2014|Chiranjit Ojha

The Indian Super League has arrived with a statement, and we better be paying attention. On a beautiful October 12 evening the Salt Lake Stadium turned into a psychedelic dreamland as excess and grandeur flooded in to give a powerful brand the best possible start. The football match that followed the opening ceremony was good enough to round up a perfect night of glamorous extravaganza.


Not much could have gone any better on ISL’s opening day. Well, there was that disaster of an introductory speech from Priyanka Chopra, (Not her fault, who wrote that shit?) that muddy affair over Nicolas Anelka and Freddie Ljunberg not playing... even the crowd was uncharacteristically mellow; something I will discuss later in the article.


But those small negatives were vastly drowned out by the immense splash it made. It was a thoroughly professional affair inside out. On the outside there were disco lights, giant screens, fireworks, presence of cricketers, politicians and movie stars, and a perfectly mimed musical performance by drummers representing the eight franchises, while on the inside there was a team of thousands who worked tirelessly in near perfect sync to make sure the event went smoothly.


No football-centric event in India has ever come remotely close to this magnitude of professionalism. That’s what makes ISL’s opening day different, and effective.


Consider these numbers. There were around 65,000 people in the stadium. That figure probably includes the press, the security personnel, the performers and the potato chips vendors but it’s a significant number. Because even if 0 people show up in the rest of the home matches of Atletico de Kolkata, they will still have a higher average of attendance than I-League’s 2013-14 season.


Also consider the fact that while I-League tickets go in the region of Rs 50, 100 and 200; ATK’s ticket prices range from Rs 200-2500. The profit they make on each ticket is several times higher than an I-League club.


With that in mind, look at a 100,000 crowd on a Kolkata Derby. It’s evenly split between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. So each club accounts for about 50,000 people on a Derby day. On non-derby games, for all the millions of fans they boast of, these clubs struggle to get 20,000 fans to show up. Which means, for all intents and purposes, Atletico de Kolkata is now the most popular football team in the city. Let that sink in.


The night of October 12 represented a major victory for the ISL organizers. For all their big talk and free flowing money, IMG-Reliance still lacked the visible proof that their business model works, and the ISL opener at YBK provided just that.


There was no army of trucks and matadors carrying legions of fans draped in club colours, sledging the opponents all the way to the stadium. But there were numerous fancy cars as businessmen and socialites came in big numbers, entire families paying thousands for each ticket, to sit close to the celebrities, many waving at them and taking their pictures instead of focusing on the game on the pitch. The familiar deafening roar of the YBK was largely missing, but about two dozen large sound boxes blared “Let’s Football” at the slightest excuse.


There was no visible tension in the ground and not many cared enough to worry about who won or lost. But there was a Mexican wave, the very first in the Salt Lake Stadium’s 30 years’ worth of illustrious history; something unthinkable in a Derby because there’s no way in hell East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans would do anything in unison. There were no unruly fire crackers going off all around the stadium. But there were dazzling displays of fireworks during the opening ceremony and after every goal. There were no battalions of paramilitary forces in full riot gear. But there were private security guards in freshly made uniforms carrying high-capacity walkie talkies. Sunday’s YBK wasn’t a volatile battleground but one massive party complete with multi-coloured disco lights and seventeen big screens, most of which were purely for decoration.


What was on display that night was the very elite of Indian society engaging in their newest indulgence. The politicians, business tycoons, actors and cricketers all came together to grace Indian football with their presence and shower their monetary blessings upon it.


The majority of people in the crowd were attending a football match for the first time. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing depends on whether they will attend the rest of the matches or not. But it’s unlikely that they will extend their indulgence beyond ISL. I-League in its present state is far too low an affair for them.


That’s not to say the old fans weren’t there. They were, only scattered all over the place, no longer forming daunting blocks of pure rage. They kicked back and enjoyed the show. Their presence was felt in the warm reception towards familiar faces like Arnab Mondal, Subrata Paul, Rahim Nabi, Lalrindika Ralte etc. After the match their reaction was torn between nostalgia and a longing for something new.


“It’s not fair to compare this with the Kolkata Derby, it’s more like IPL,” said Srijit, an East Bengal fan. And he was right. The music, the lights, the giant screens constantly cutting away from the match to showcase the celebrities present in the stands... it was exactly like IPL. It was a high-brow, star-studded social event where the DJ, the fireworks guy, the drummers and the dancers were every bit as important as the footballers, while the owners were the guests of honour.


Hence, ISL doesn’t need to emulate the Kolkata Derby. The Derby may be unparalleled in terms of passion and intensity but it can’t match ISL in terms of profit. And this is where ISL wins : by attracting a new well-off audience that has enough money to splash on entertainment events but never considered football attractive enough.


That’s not to say that the Indian Super League has already become a guaranteed success. The hype around the opening ceremony/season may be enough to draw the initial eyeballs but it’s the quality of the game that will keep the box office busy in the long term.


The Atletico-Mumbai match sometimes exposed the lack of coordination between the players in these newly-formed teams but there was enough individual brilliance to make it memorable. Teffera’s dominant performance up front, Luis Garcia’s sharp through balls, that breathtaking second goal by Borja Fernandez... even the goalkeepers pulled off some quality saves, although Subroto Paul got a bit unlucky due to a fragmented defensive line-up fielded by Mumbai City FC. The veteran goalkeeper seemed to have enjoyed the occasion, though, and hesitantly agreed in the press conference that the quality of football in ISL was significantly better than I-League.


The need to promote the brand ISL was felt everywhere, even in the two coaches’ statements after the match. ATK coach Antonio Habas refused to speak about individual players, stressing that they played well as a team and needed to immediately focus on the next game. Mumbai City coach Peter Reid refused to allow the alien YBK turf to be an excuse and said they needed to dust themselves off and try to put on a better show at their home debut against Pune City. This collective focus on performance as a means to promote the league and their franchises in order to win over the fans would feel almost outlandish in I-League, but this is what it takes to bring new people to the grounds, and it’s a shame that franchises in a non FIFA recognized tournament figured this out sooner than the real football clubs. A match between Mumbai FC and Pune FC goes almost unnoticed but on 18th October, the DY Patil Stadium records the highest attendance in a professional football match in the history of Mumbai.


Two Mohun Bagan fans, Niladri and Prosenjit, told me they saw no problem with supporting one team during ISL and another during I-League. “The two leagues should not merge,” they said. “Entertainment is entertainment, serious football is something else.” Their view is shared by many fans online, and this is exactly how Atletico de Kolkata’s owners want things to be. When you think about this perspective it reveals that a large number of fans are waking up to the monotonous nature of the football they had been fed for years.


Any veteran fan would tell you that the quality of football on display in I-League today isn’t much better than how it used to be in the 1990s. This stagnation is what has seen India slide further and further down in the FIFA rankings and kept popularity of football from reaching its maximum even in the places where the game has had a long-standing presence and stature. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan officials like to brag about their clubs’ popularity, but the fact remains that other than the derby all their matches have mediocre ticket sales, and that is because they never gave the fans any incentive to show up and feel valued.


Atletico de Kolkata have done just that and this is a welcome change for those who can afford to buy a ticket. Who knows, maybe in a few years these fans will convert and become full-time ATK fans. Football faith in the masses isn’t as rock-solid as it is made out to be. If it was, average attendance in the Kolkata clubs’ matches would be much higher.


Ajitavo, an engineering student, was trying to convince his girlfriend that Hritik Roshan had already left the stadium and it was pointless to stand in front of the VIP entrance waiting to catch a glimpse of him. “I’ve seen I-League matches on TV,” he told me. “They didn’t seem that interesting when I could just switch the channel and watch Barcelona.” He was mildly curious about this new league and bought tickets to Sunday’s match as part of his date.


When I mentioned that this is the first time I’ve seen somebody in Kolkata include a football match in a romantic date, he laughed and said, “But you’ll always see people taking their girlfriends to IPL games. Isn’t it ironic?” When asked about whether he’d support a team in ISL, he shrugged. “This is a plastic league man, not my thing,” said the Messi fan. “But plastic is very popular among those who don’t know how toxic it is.”


I couldn’t have put it any better. The Indian Super League is perfectly packaged to entertain a certain class of people regardless of whether they like football or not. It has followed the IPL formula to the  minutest details and it’s working. Monday’s match in Guwahati was a sold out affair and the game in Delhi saw a decent turnout. Mohun Bagan boast the highest attendance in the I-League but it’s quite possible that every single ISL franchise will report a higher average of attendance than them.


Hence, while we can’t already call ISL a success, there’s no doubt it’s off to a flying start. If the organizers manage to retain this level of interest in the league for the first 5 seasons, this new tournament will have embedded its place in the heart of the fans and the Indian football calendar.


Praful Patel’s opening address at YBK surprisingly mentioned the I-League and how AIFF was committed to see both leagues grow and prosper. It’s a continuation of the administration’s vision of ISL roping in new fans who would extend their support to I-League clubs as well. So far there has been no major push from them or IMG-Reliance to promote the I-League to newer fans and spread the league to new regions. The people who are attending ISL matches in Delhi, Guwahati, Chennai and Kerala have no local club in the I-League to support. So their interest in Indian football will not go beyond the ISL for sure.


Pune and Mumbai will be interesting to look at come January, but then again, not much is likely to happen unless the clubs market themselves aggressively. Unfortunately the I-League clubs will most probably lack the monetary strength to match the ISL franchises in terms of glamour, which means the ISL fans may be prone to snub them.


Thus, instead of winning new fans for the I-League, the ISL may end up indirectly ruining the real national championship for many uninitiated enthusiasts. But on the flip side, one can argue that these new fans wouldn’t be interested in football in the first place if it wasn’t for ISL, so there you go.


While there is a chance that ISL’s success may negatively affect I-League and Indian football in general, its failure is sure to set us back by 20-odd years. The sponsors and investors will see it as unequivocal proof that it’s impossible to make a profit off Indian football and nobody will want to touch the game for a very long time. And that’s where ISL has us at checkmate: its success may or may not damage the I-League clubs, their academies and their fan culture, but its failure may put the very existence of professional football in India under threat.


So, for all my outspoken criticism of the Indian Super League, I’d still urge football fans to go to the games. You don’t have to support any team. Just go, it’s not that bad. There will be music, fireworks, good vibes and some quality football. Sit back and enjoy the relaxing experience; an evening well spent. Take your spouse to the game, maybe. Or your family. And if you can’t be at the stadium, watch it on TV or subscribe to whatever stuff they have online. Just do what you can to make sure this thing is a success. Chances are it will be a major success regardless of what you do but you know, every bit helps.


And then hope that the franchises actually make good on their promise of having proper grassroot development programmes. Hope that some of the new fans who have been pulled in by the presence star players get impressed by some Indian players and start watching the I-League for their sake. And pray that I-League finds a better broadcaster from the 2015-16 season onwards and receives some proper backing from IMG-Reliance.


Of course, all your hopes and prayers may just go unanswered, but don’t let that hold you back, because there’s absolutely nothing else that you can do. The old, traditional fans of Indian football don’t matter anymore. The new casual fans easily outnumber them, and in the modern professional game, numbers are everything.


This is the reality of the current situation. At a tender age of just over a week, ISL has already made itself indispensable to Indian football and its future, perhaps more so than I-League. And that’s where it has won. Plastic or not, it’s definitely here, and if the early trends are anything to go by, it’s going the distance.