Why you should care

Because a big-money league may put your hometown team out of business.

Perhaps the most resplendent moment in Indian soccer came in 1911, when the country was still under the yoke of the British Raj: The Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, of Kolkata, defeated a team composed of British troops. Never mind that most of the Bengalis were barefoot, and the English soldiers handsomely equipped. The match was so glorious that it supposedly galvanized the Indian-independence movement.

Now in its 117th year, the Mohun Bagan A.C. remains a league champion — but it’s among a welter of storied soccer clubs that are fighting for their lives. The national league in which they compete, the I-League, is increasingly threatened by a glitzy behemoth called the Indian Super League. Backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from celebrities, international corporations and foreign soccer clubs, the ISL came to fruition in 2014 with eight clubs playing a 14-game, made-for-TV season. Its highest-profile players washed up in the West years ago, but nevertheless it has usurped the I-League’s pride of place as the nation’s top league.

The aim was “to ignite a revolution in the sport and ultimately enable Indian football to thrive and perform at the highest level on the international stage.”

A series of venerable clubs have since exited the humbled I-League, among them Shillong’s Royal Wahingdoh F.C. (established in 1946). “It made no sense for us to be part of a league that had no future,” says Royal Wahingdoh manager Nicholas Jyrwa. Left without a club, Royals standout Jackichand Singh signed with the ISL’s Pune City FC and saw his salary nearly double to 5 million rupees ($74,600), all for just two months of soccer. But the careers of other I-League pros have ended prematurely. For clubs like Mohun Bagan A.C., which is negotiating to join the Super League, the choice is dire and clear: Come up with the franchise fee, a whopping $30 million over eight years, or continue playing in a league that’s facing an existential crisis.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. When the All India Football Federation (AIFF) signed the deal that created the Super League in 2010, it said it expected the Super League to help support the I-League and for the two leagues to merge within five years. The aim, it said, was “to ignite a revolution in the sport and ultimately enable Indian football to thrive and perform at the highest level on the international stage.”

To that end it pulled in the star power, offering celebrities a piece of the new soccer action at the price of $25 million for a 10-year franchise — chump change in a land where the Mumbai Indians cricket team is worth $200 million. In fact, one of the greatest cricketers of all time, Sachin Tendulkar, snapped up some rights to the franchise in Kochi. Bollywood stars like John Abraham, Abhishek Bachchan and Salman Khan dove in. And Atlético Madrid, the storied Spanish club, partnered with the new franchise in West Bengal, Atlético de Kolkata.

And, of course, there was a big TV deal. Star Sports Network, which is owned by subsidiaries of 21st Century Fox, bought broadcast rights and a 35 percent stake in Football Sports Development, the subsidiary of IMG-Reliance that runs the ISL. The price tag: reportedly $300 million.

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Supporters of East Bengal in the I-League.

Source Diptendu Dutta/Getty

The new league got off to a fast start, with an average attendance of 24,357, more than 10 times the size of the usual I-league crowd. With cricket and Bollywood stars promoting their teams, the TV audience was also strong: 56 million viewers. In the second season, TV viewership increased 26 percent and average attendance swelled to 27,090, third highest in the world after Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League.

Critics sniped that the ISL was strictly a celebrity venture that would do little to promote the game in India. “What’s the point in whitewashing the exterior of a mansion when the interior needs a change?” asks Rupayan Banerjee, a West Bengal sportswriter who has covered Indian soccer for 35 years. “ISL is just for glamour.” Banerjee sees little but cold calculation at work: Soccer has an Indian constituency, and one that comes a lot cheaper than cricket’s. For publicity’s sake, it’s easier to create new teams and import old stars than to invest in existing clubs, like Mohun Bagan. The AIFF did not respond to a request for comment.

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Brazilian football legend Pelé arrives in Kolkata last year.

Source Samir Jana/Getty

Of course, it’s not as though soccer had enjoyed some sort of hallowed, halcyon time before 2010. The sport has long been marginalized by cricket-crazed audiences. For that matter, India has never been to a World Cup — it qualified in 1950 by default, after its Asian rivals dropped out, and even then, the team didn’t go to the tournament. Indeed, ISL proponents point out that it was only because Indian soccer was in such a sorry state that the cash-strapped AIFF even entertained the ISL.

Many argue that for India to become a soccer powerhouse, it must invest in the sport’s grassroots. Which is why Wahingdoh is focusing on developing future soccer stars. That effort has already paid off, it says, with a soccer scholarship in Germany for 13-year-old Badonlang Rapsang, from its youth academy. After thanking his parents, his school and Royal Wahingdoh F.C., the truck driver’s son promised to return to Shillong after completing his six-year training and play for the Royals. Here’s hoping the team will have a league to play in by then.

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