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Indian football can’t have two leagues, says Star India prez Nitin Kukreja

MUMBAI: Star Sports is making a sincere attempt to push the Indian Super League (ISL), thereby turning around Indian football. At the same time, the sport cannot have two leagues, said Star India president of sports Nitin Kukreja.

Delivering a keynote at the ‘Star Sports India Football Forum 2015’, which was organised by Sportzpower and Event Capital, Kukreja noted that a roadmap must be developed to have just one league. “We haven’t moved forward. On paper, we have local events. In practice, these are academic exercises.”

Incidentally, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has formed a working group to look into the feasibility of the merger of I-League and the ISL.

Nitin KukrejaAlthough I-League is the official league of India, it is the ISL which has turned out to be a more popular tournament with all the key ingredients including corporate and celebrity owners, sponsorship and marketing support, international players, and wide reach through live TV coverage.

The calls for merging the two leagues have got louder due to issues over scheduling and player fatigue. The presence of I-League has made it difficult for ISL to have a longer season like other football leagues.

Earlier, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das had said that the rival leagues would merge into a single competition. “Probably 14-16 teams pan-India going on for seven to eight months. That’s the vision,” Das had said.

Meanwhile, referring to infrastructure, Kukreja said that stadiums currently are an apology. The football ecosystem in India is fragile. Laying emphasis on the importance of grassroots programmes, he gave the example of German football that benefited from this.

He noted the value of structured participation of football in schools and colleges. “Football needs more youth tournaments. Cricket is played in the streets and football needs to get there. The AIFF has to address key issues,” he said.

The aim of the ISL is to grow it in places where the sport is not too popular—North and West India. He bemoaned the fact that India is not doing well at the international level as the country lacks the infrastructure to develop players.

He observed that Indian football is marked by a striking dichotomy. On the one hand, there is a huge appetite for the sport in the country. Manchester United’s third-highest fan base comes from India. On the other hand, the sport is spoken of in negative terms.

“There are perception issues. The ISL has brought in a new threshold. It is a sincere attempt to turn around Indian football. We ensured stadium readiness, added high production values and upped marketing. The aspirational value has risen. Two soccer players were auctioned at cricket prices. This season we are seeing more goals being scored,” he said at length.

In his keynote, DFL Sports Enterprises chief representative Asia Pacific Peter Leible spoke about the success of the German system. That system was overhauled in 2000 after German football reached its nadir. Winning the World Cup last year was the result of the investment made in youth development programmes. The Bundesliga is played in a different style today compared to 20 years ago. India, he noted, needs patience because it would take more time to reach where we want to go due to lack of infrastructure.

Highlighting the uniqueness of German football fan culture, he said that German fan attendance is second only to the NFL in the US. Its key media partners include 21st Century Fox and Eurosport. Years ago, the Bundesliga was seen in a few Asian countries like Japan and China. Now it is seen everywhere. Before 1990, the German public broadcaster held the rights and gave it to public broadcasters in other countries for free. That changed after 1990.

He mentioned Unilazer’s connection to a German club for a grassroots initiative and referred to a German club called Borussia Dortmund opening an office in Asia. He noted that the club is keen on India.

Leible also conceded that having Bayern Munich be so much better than the other teams was not good for the Bundesliga. More competition would be welcome.