Can faded stars stimulate Indian football?

Story highlights

  • Indian Premier League Soccer announces it will launch in late February
  • The tournament has echoes of India's successful IPL cricket competition
  • Former stars such as Robert Pires, Fabio Cannavaro and Jay-Jay Okocha involved
  • Six franchises will play each other in a bid to boost soccer in India

It has long come as a mystery to soccer fans: how can India, with a population of 1.2 billion and a burgeoning passion for football, be languishing at 162nd in the world rankings below Madagascar and Nepal?

It is an anomaly that organizers of the country's new Premier League Soccer franchise hope to tackle, with their model that intends to echo the success of cricket's money-spinning IPL tournament -- a shortened format of the sport featuring some of its biggest entertainers.

Six former legends of the game, including ex-Arsenal and France midfielder Robert Pires and Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, have signed up for the inaugural tournament due to start in February.

The Celebrity Management Group has signed a 30-year deal with the Indian Football Association and hopes to create a new surge of popularity for soccer in one of the most densely populated countries on earth.

Six teams will participate in Monday's auction in Kolkata to acquire stars of football's past. The list also includes former Spain forward Fernando Morientes, who won three European Champions League titles with Real Madrid, ex-Argentina striker Hernan Crespo, Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler and Nigeria's former World Cup star Jay-Jay Okocha.

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Each club will have a maximum of $2.5 million to spend in the first year, with no team allowed more than four foreign players. Each squad must also contain six under-21 Indian players.

It is a concept that Bhaswar Goswami, executive director of CMG, hopes will transform the fortunes of the nation's soccer team.

    "The PLS has already created a huge interest among fans, players and sponsors. It's a great chance to be associated with global brands," he told CNN.

    According to Goswami, around 155 million Indians watched football on television in 2010, and a study in 2009 by the World Bank found that 47% of the population would describe themselves as soccer fans.

    But there is no question that India is cricket crazy, with revered batsman Sachin Tendulkar, known as the "Little Master," sure to trump former England and Manchester United footballer David Beckham as an icon on the sub-continent.

    Though Goswami denies the PLS will be similar to the IPL, there are many similarities -- not least the hope that big names will add a large helping of glitz and glamor to proceedings.

    The annual 20-over cricket competition has proved a huge success since it launched in 2008, with the world's best players auctioned off to the nine teams, set against a backdrop of Bollywood bling.

    However, Goswami prefers to look elsewhere for a comparison -- English football's Premier League.

    "If I have to benchmark myself, I will benchmark with the EPL, which is the most successful league across the world," he said.

    "Moreover, the PLS will actually complement football in India. It will create a new market, a new audience and will produce more homegrown talent," he said.

    Sports analyst Harpal Singh Bedi told CNN that football was now the second most-watched sport in India behind cricket, and that the PLS could prove a game-changer.

    "This is a very good attempt," he said. "There are foreign players, foreign coaches and, if it is conducted like the IPL with proper planning, the PLS too can be superb."

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