When the Hero Indian Super League was announced this past October, there were many questions and few answers about the nascent soccer league. The national team is ranked No. 158 in the FIFA world rankings, and do not currently have a coach.The county’s professional sports scene is dominated by cricket, with successful domestic leagues and an international team known the world over.
The ISL was undeterred. The League attracted high-profile athletes, businessmen and foreign soccer powers to invest in teams. They imported star players, like Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet, who despite being past their prime were still household names, as well as famous tactician managers like Zico and Peter Reid.
This October, nearly a year after the announcement, the inaugural season kicked off, drawing sell-out crowds and the attention of the global soccer community. While the ISL can appear to some as a simple money grab or ploy for attention, the ISL franchises have committed to do their part to grow the game not only for investors, but for their communities and the youth of India. According to FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke, this was the key for FIFA, who recently threw their substantial weight behind the ISL.
“When we were presented the project and began working with the Indian federation, we wanted to do whatever we could to promote or help the development of football in India,” Valcke told the ISL website. “However, what is important is that whenever you do something at the top level, you don’t forget about the grassroots programmes and to develop football at the level of the kids. That’s how you build football in a country.”
And that is where the ISL will ultimately be judged. When it comes to empowering communities and youth through sport in the long-term, the ISL must remain just as undeterred as they when the league was founded.
As of now, it appears the ISL is on the right track. Firstly, the ISL regulations require a minimum of 14 Indian players, and four of those must come from the team’s region of India. Many have committed to establishing academies through which they can invite local youth to play, in order to encourage youth, identify talent and incorporate locals into their organizations. The ISL claims it wants to complement the existing grassroots efforts of the All India Football Federation. Those grassroots efforts, which began in 2012, include programs in many Indian states that offer everythingfrom training for coaches to working with schools to encourage physical education.
Alongside the AIFF, there are many NGOs working throughout India to bring the sport and its values to the youth. One major player, MagicBus, brings weekly sporting activities to communities across the country. Through the use of sport and physical activity, Magic Bus introduces and encourages the value of school attendance, future employment and, most importantly, female empowerment. Many of the Magic Bus curriculum has been adopted by the government at the state and federal level. In Andhra Pradesh, a state situated on India’s southeastern coast, the Magic Bus practice has been interwoven into the education of the estimated 36 million children who reside there.
Franchises in the ISL’s competitor league, known as the I-League, have also declared to build the game from a grassroots level. Mumbai FC, along with sport management firm Millenium Sports, recently launched a grassroots initiative in which it will build 20 footballing centers around Mumbai by December 2015. While the centers would be used to identify talent, they will mostly act as non-profit organization focusing on physical fitness, education and workshops for families.
Perhaps the first global insight into the success of the grassroots efforts will come in 2017, when India hosts the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The Indian sports ministry, which stated after the Olympics in 2012 that it would start focusing on sport development under the age of 17, will have a chance to put that into practice, both on the field and off.
It is too early to tell whether the ISL will ultimately be a success, or whether the stars will depart and the money evaporate as fast as they appeared. What is certain, though, is that the organization’s priority placed on grassroots development is in line with the established leagues, NGOs and the sports ministry. In that way, they have already succeeded, and have shown a long-term commitment to the uplift of the Indian nation and its youth.