Indian Super League a microcosm of modern football’s dual nature

The inaugural competition’s noble aims sit uneasily, but all too predictably, alongside the beautiful game‘s ugly trappings                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The newly-formed Indian Super League is, to put it bluntly, something of an enigma. Format-wise, it operates as is fairly standard for leagues in emerging football nations, with a relegation-free ‘franchise’ system of city-based teams. But at the same time, its ambitions are unprecedented for just about any national football league ever created – its chief supposed aim is not merely to establish the status of football in India, but to establish the status of India in football. Perhaps, therefore, the ISL is a little more worthy of our attention than our footballing intuitions might suggest.

Essentially, three businesses dominant in their respective fields run the ISL. Reliance, India’s largest business enterprise; IMG, the global sports and media company; and Star India, the subcontinent’s largest TV and entertainment network, all own equal stakes in the venture.

The idea that such corporate powerhouses should monopolise revenue from the promotion of a sport which, globally, already makes £28 billion, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Granted, it is perhaps necessary for such big corporate players to take the reigns where the aim is nothing less than to put football in India “on the global map”. Star India’s broadcasting expertise, for example, may well prove invaluable in achieving this. Yet there is an underhand circularity to this aim: it is an aim set out by the three companies themselves, and not any footballing body.

The person, for example, who asserted “Our objective is nothing short of creating movement around football in India… we want to put India on the global map” was none other than the CEO of Star India himself, Uday Shankar. The person who asserted “We hope the growing football footprint will pave the way for the nation’s sporting renaissance” was the chairperson of Reliance, Nita Ambani. The person who asserted “The ISL envisions creating new football powerhouses in this part of the world” was the CEO of IMG, Mike Dolan. In other words, the ISL is no brainchild of the AIFF (the Indian FA), at whose behest the corporate triumvirate are dutifully acting. No, the ISL is an entirely self-contained corporate enterprise, the assets of which are therefore ripe for monetization by the companies who run it. The AIFF does endorse, but merely endorses, the ISL’s existence, which was jointly proposed and set-up by IMG and Reliance, and not by anyone at the AIFF. One only need Google the ISL logo to see who it really belongs to.  

Of course, insofar as one can distinguish the noble aims from the gold-rush, the ISL still appears worthwhile. It is surely a tantalising prospect for those who feel football in India is under-established. The ISL’s promises to implement football development projects at grassroots level across the country are heartening. As is the promise to groom any talent identified at grassroots level to professional standards, under the wings of a new generation of Indian coaches.

Yet to distinguish between the noble aims and the money is really to misconceive the ISL’s true, dual nature. The owner of every club, or ‘franchise’ in the ISL was required to make grassroots-development promises to be allowed to bid for ownership in the first place. For example, Bollywood star Salman Khan, owner of Pune City FC, was required to plan for the development of grassroots football in Pune. But to acquire the franchise at all, Khan’s wealth and celebrity status were themselves virtual requirements. Furthermore, the rule of having at least four local (and fourteen Indian) players in each squad is curiously offset by the compulsory signing of a so-called “marquee player”; Alessandro Del Piero of the Delhi Dynamos being the most high-profile example. This championing of, at once, moneyed celebrities and local everymen, could not be more typical of modern football.

But why, then, does football possess such a dual nature? On the face of it, football seems internally incoherent; the ‘people’s game’ and yet parochially aloof from the people it purports to represent.

The answer lies with joy. For anyone who understands a posteriori the sheer joy football can bring, the way in which it can bring people together like almost no other pursuit in existence, the idea that it should be promoted as far and wide as possible is nigh-on axiomatic.

Yet this is precisely why the promotion of football, especially in areas where it is less established such as India, manifests itself in such money-driven bombast. It is not simply that football’s essential joyfulness attracts people keen exploit it for cash. It is that football’s joyfulness somehow justifies the treasure-hunt. By the logic of those behind the Indian Super League, the end of promoting football – promoting joy – justifies the means. Or to put their logic another way: if football essentially possesses a heart of gold – what with the joy the pure game brings to so many people – then the body surrounding the heart and enabling it to function must also be made of gold. Specifically, corporate gold.

Modern football, then, is one big paradox. Implicit in the ISL is the notion that the game is simply too entertaining for too many people, for the corporate trio’s monopoly and the celebrity hype to really matter. The passion of the many justifies the greed of the few. This principle can quite easily be said to apply to modern football in general.

Perhaps it can even be said (and many have said this) that this principle is not merely contingent, but necessary. In other words, football is so popular that its corporate monetization and celebrity culture could not but have occurred. Football, many claim, has grown too big for its own boots; the everyman’s hobnail pair it once adorned torn apart at the seams by fat-cat corporate feet.

In the final analysis, it is hard to be sure about that view. It seems no less plausible that the monetization of football (resulting in the game’s being broadcasted across the globe) has helped cause its immense popularity, and not just the other way round. But what is certain is that modern football is a double-edged sword. Its essential joyfulness and ability to unite people rests in an uneasy alliance with money-lust and celebrity cults, whether this is necessarily the case or not. And the Indian Super League, played as it is under the dazzling light of the Indian sun, could hardly make this double-edged sword glare any more fiercely.

CW, 22/10/14

CharlieIndian Super League a microcosm of modern football’s dual nature

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