The promoters of the Indian Super League have announced an exclusive long-term partnership with the German top flight for the development of the domestic game.
Taking in over $4.5 billion in annual revenue, shown in over 200 countries around the world, and with the biggest average attendance of any footballing league on the planet, the Bundesliga is simply a behemoth when it comes to the sport’s domestic leagues.
While behind its counterparts in England and Spain, Germany’s top division still attracts a huge television audience – including India, where it’s growth has taken it from Neo Sports, to the mainstream Star Sports package – and some of the best players of this current generation.
Indeed, that’s why mouths were salivating among those involved in Indian football, when the recent partnership between the Bundesliga and IMG-Reliance was announced at the turn of the month and if the league’s international CEO Robert Klein is to be believed, it could signal a massive opportunity to grow the game in the subcontinent.
“A long-term, executable strategy is the only way to deeply connect with Indian audiences and to help grow the sport across the country,” said Klein on the partnership, which sees the league, its clubs and ambassadors partner up with the Indian Super League (ISL) teams in various capacities to help further not only the ISL and its structures, but also grow the Bundesliga brand in one of the largest and most promising emerging football markets in the world.
The term ‘deeply’ is a particularly poignant one, given the current strategic partnership between the league and the English Premier League, which while beneficial, seems slightly superficial, as ambassadors occasionally visit to keep up appearances in the country, aided by a media glad to have the opportunity to interview the likes of Didier Drogba and Co, instead of asking whether these fleeting trips really do enough to promote the game in India, or just act as a billboard for the self-anointed ‘greatest league in the world.’
To that end, undoubtedly it has worked, with over 155m Indians following the Premier League last year by its own statistics, almost three times the population of the country in which it’s based. As you can imagine, there were German mouths salivating in that room, too, the other day.
While Klein didn’t go into the full details last week, he did specify that the league would be working with ISL clubs on areas like youth development, spectator experience and fan-engagement. Something which – if our experience is anything to go by – is badly needed for quite a few of the clubs around the league.
Supporter experience is absolutely essential if the ISL is to survive and thrive, in a country where football still plays second-fiddle to the non-stop action of T20 cricket and Bollywood, and whose clubs haven’t the same heritage from which to draw generations of hardcore supporters as some I-League sides, or indeed clubs like those in Germany.
The ISL already has a strategic partnership with Premier League but it has failed to get off the ground in tangible terms
What this latest partnership gives ISL teams is a sense of credibility and may entice some of those who follow the leagues in Europe so devoutly to stop overlooking what’s closer to home as an inferior package. Promised advertising campaigns will go some way to getting the word out there, but whether people are truly convinced will depend not only on how much time the Bundesliga invests in the league, but also how seriously its clubs take their advice on board.
However, what makes this partnership particularly special is the promise of assistance for youth development in India. The numbers are there, undoubtedly, but a lack of top quality coaching means that current Bengaluru goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is the only Indian to have ever played in European continental competition.
Not to undermine the Indian shot-stopper’s achievement, but India’s inability to coach its home-grown players to greater heights internationally is a travesty and the country’s failure to perform on the big stage means the sport will forever be in the shadows of its more successful cricketing brother, unless something radically changes.
There are a plethora of English and Spanish coaches already plying their trade in the ISL to varying levels of success, but for coaches to arrive from a country that itself has produced no fewer than four World Cup winning teams and help mould the future of the country’s best and brightest talents, could potentially accelerate India’s footballing development several times over.
With over 35,000, Germany plays second only to Spain for the amount of registered coaches in the country and youth development forms the backbone of its entire footballing structure. Each Bundesliga team is required to have an academy in order to obtain a licence and not just young players, but coaches are given opportunities to craft that ‘speed and vibrancy’ which former Neo Sports Vice-President Sudip Roy noted as being particularly popular to Indian audiences.
One needs only to look at the likes of Julian Nagelsmann, Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp to see what young German coaches have achieved in Europe and the revolutionary changes their successors could introduce into the still developing game in this country is beyond imagination.
It’s another shot in the arm for the ISL at the expense of the I-League, whose claim as India’s top flight is again being undermined, and with the carrot of top-quality European coaches coming to directly look at Indian talent, it’s hard to see many using the I-League as a stepping stone as seems to be the case currently.
In any case, for a European league to put serious thought and effort developing not just the game’s popularity from the top-down, but its potential future stars from the ground-up, is the kind of crucial opportunity which could potentially revolutionise the game in a country who has seen its fair share of footballing false dawns in the past.
However, It’s up to the ISL sides now to fully utilize the resources given and make sure this isn’t another disappointment, but a truly game-changing moment for Indian football.
Kevin Galvin is an Irish freelance football journalist currently travelling in India, and covering the Indian Super League on his blog ISLIndependent.