Special Report: The Sleeping Giant of World football – India

August 15, 2016

On Indian Independence Day, iSportconnect takes a look at one of the biggest emerging football markets: India.


India has long been a sleeping giant in world football.

For years cricket has been by far and away the most popular sport in the country, but slowly India is also starting to inch towards making a name for itself in world football. With a population of 1.2 billion, if India can nurture a love of the game, and turn that into commercial and on-field success, they have the potential to make waves.

Kushal Das, General Secretary AIFF (All India Football Federation) is pleased with the direction that Indian football is moving in:

“We are very enthused with the way Indian football is progressing now. We had some problems, but we have overcome them I think. We’re on the right path, and we’re optimistic on the growth of Indian football in the next few years.”

The problem Das refers to is the Indian Super League. Confusingly there were two leagues being played side by side in India, both claiming to be the country’s top domestic league: The I-League and ISL. From 2017 onwards the ISL will stand alone as the country’s top league. Das explains that the system had to change:

“We had a huge problem – that none of the leagues were sustainable. The clubs were finding it difficult to manage, the financial model was not working. So we decided to restructure and have a three tiered league. The top league – the Indian Super League, then leagues 1 and 2. There is no promotion or relegation between ISL and league 1 for the next five or six years. That’s because of contractual issues and that the ISL is different ball game altogether, the level of investment is completely different, and we want the clubs to come up to speed to become sustainable before they come up to the top league. So for five or six years there will be no promotion or relegation, then we will open up everything. The focus is to create a sustainable model for all the clubs, which benefits most the stakeholders of Indian football.”

Getting the domestic football offering right is obviously at the heart of developing Indian football. Baljit Rihal, CEO of Inventive Sports, who are a London based consultancy specialising in advising clients on the Indian Football market, feels the new ISL set up will take India to the next level, although it may be painful for some:

“A major restructure in the make-up of India’s football league system is something that I believe is necessary in order to capture the massive appetite that the younger generation of Indians have for the sport. It’s a difficult task for the AIFF as there are a number of clubs that have been at the forefront of Indian football for many decades and even some in existence for over a hundred years – and they stand to lose out being in the revamped ISL.”


The AIFF’s vision of football development in India hangs on their ability to have a good standard of domestic football, as everyone looks to move on from the ISL/I-League dispute. To that end, the ISL is bringing in outside players to boost the popularity and standard of local football. The I-League CEO Sunando Dhar has looked to other young leagues to see how they got off the ground.

“The MLS and the J-League did it when they started, bringing big stars into the game. They not only come as players, they come as brand ambassadors and draw the crowd, draw youngsters into the game. That’s a good thing. We can use their experience and their expertise, Indian players can learn from them.”

But the challenge for India is that other foreign leagues are willing to spend big money to get the very best players playing in their leagues, most notably in China. But Dhar wants a more organic growth, and doesn’t see the acquisition of foreign talent as the ultimate goal of the league:

“We don’t want to compare ourselves with China… China have so much money, they are throwing it around everywhere. We want to concentrate on our home grown talent. How do we make the league better, how do we make the players better? For that reason if we bring in foreign players that’s fine. But the most important thing is to make the league grow and grow the Indian players.”

If they can get the new Indian Super League right, there is a feeling within India that they have the raw resources to build something special. Rihal says he can already see the progress:

“The sleeping ‘Indian’ giant of world football is slowly rousing – the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) has been a major factor. Statistically, based on match attendance figures, the ISL is the fourth largest league in the world. Football is now firmly India’s number two choice sport, after of course the massive popularity of cricket.

“Commercially, football is now being seen as a serious alternative to the more expensive cricket for companies wishing to raise brand awareness to the Indian mass audience. It’s certainly a developing market, but one that European clubs and brands should get their teeth into early.”

So what is the end goal? The AIFF and ISL are very clear on this: they want a strong national team. The I-League and the All Indian Football Federation want the domestic league to generate a steady flow of Indian talent that can take the national team to new heights. Dhar was very clear that it will be the main KPI of the league:

“Creating Indian players is the number one priority. Football is very well supported in India, mostly the European leagues. But slowly and surely the love of Indian football is growing. Teams are being well supported. The Indian national team needs to do well, to gain a national support base. That’s what we are trying to work on. We have the U17 World Cup in about a year’s time. That should have a great impact on the sport, it’ll be the first time an Indian team plays in the World Cup. 24 countries in eight venues, that will be a huge event for us, and hopefully the nation can rally around the Indian team.”


The U17 tournament will be a useful barometer of how well India are doing on developing home grown talent. The AIFF and the domestic leagues see the youngsters that will compete in the U17 World Cup at the first of a new generation.

“The effort, the time, the money that we have spent on the U17 boys for the last two or three years… We’ve never done that before” explained Dhal. “The base that has been created for these boys has been great. We want these boys to be represented in national team soon.”

So when do they expect to see the fruits of their labours? Sooner than you might think according to Das:

“I’d like to think we can try [qualify] for the 2022 World Cup, but certainly 2026. That’s our target.”

Das also said India might be interested in hosting a World Cup in the 2030s or beyond.

India may not be throwing the money that China are into its domestic football project, but now they have their domestic leagues in order, they will look to continue growing football, and continue to tap into the huge potential fan base. India wants a place at the table of global football – and in 10 to 20 years it may well be there.