Mrs Nita Ambani: ISL has rekindled India's love for football

With the fourth season of Hero Indian Super League set to get underway later this year, Chairperson of Football Sports Development Ltd, Mrs Nita Ambani spoke to the Economic Times about a variety of subjects, including the future of Indian football, the FIFA U-17 World Cup and the eagerly-anticipated fourth season of the Hero ISL, which will feature 10 teams. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Is ISL where you wanted it to be today four years ago? What’ve been the challenges?

ISL was launched to rekindle India’s love for the Beautiful Game. The first three seasons have established football as the common language, provided an international platform for our footballers to perform, and brought global attention to India. We’re committed to making India a footballing nation. But this is just the beginning, ISL will have two new clubs (this season) and will be longer.

What are the plans in Season 4?

This year, ISL has expanded to ten cities. The Tatas, who have a rich legacy in Indian football, are one of the two new teams and play from Jamshedpur. The Jindals, with their strong fan base in Bengaluru, are the second.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) is trying its best to get top international players in their prime. Is this the model ISL is also following, considering that CSL played a role in China’s participation in the 2002 World Cup?

CSL has developed their strategy on the basis of the needs of their local markets. For India, ISL has brought global attention to Indian football, and it is a journey. We will be delighted when India makes it to the World Cup in the not-too-distant future. But for that we need continuous investments in both grassroots and infrastructure. We’ve been focused on enhancing the love for football in traditional regions such as the north-east, Bengal, Kerala and Goa. And at the same time, we’ve been taking it to other parts of India. For example, the engagement levels for ISL in Chennai and Tamil Nadu is heart-warming.

How important is spectator popularity of football in India, correlated to the playing of the game? And does the ISL need to throw up some homegrown stars?

Both need to go hand in hand. You need fans for support. But you also need well-organised events and a quality display on the field. The ISL is trying to provide a balanced mix. We’re delighted that players like Romeo Fernandes (FC Goa), Sandesh Jhingan (Kerala Blasters), Jeje Lalpekhlua (Chennaiyin FC), Mandar Rao Desai (Bengaluru FC), Jerry Lalrinzuala (Chennaiyin FC), Eugeneson Lyngdoh (FC Pune City), CK Vineeth (Kerala Blasters), Rino Anto (Bengaluru FC), Souvik Chakraborty (Delhi Dynamos), Rowllin Borges (NorthEast United) and Jewel Raja (Atlético de Kolkata) are becoming stars, in addition to established ones like Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru FC). At Reliance Foundation, we’re investing in grassroots programmes and youth development activities. Two of Reliance Foundation Young Champs, Kshitij Kumar (U13) and G Balaji (U15) had two rounds of trials with Dutch Clubs PSV Eindhoven and NEC Nijmegen. NEC have confirmed they’ll sign both of them.

India’s FIFA ranking has been rising recently. What do you think are the reasons behind this improvement?

It has taken two decades for India to achieve their second-best ranking of 96. They deserve every bit of the credit. We’ve been working with the AIFF towards defining the Indian football calendar to provide our national team with more international matches and exposure. As a result, India have played more number of international friendlies in the last ten months — against Puerto Rico (September 2016), Cambodia (March 2017) and Nepal (June 2017).

What are the elements of the football ecosystem you’re working on?

First was to have a defined 12-month calendar for Indian football. With ISL and I-League to run concurrently, we’ve created a clear window for the national team to explore international matches and friendlies. This helps India in its quest of improving its FIFA rankings. We’ll see over 350 competitive football games live, including Champions Cup, Super Cup and Women’s League. In addition, we’re planning to introduce League 3, a tier-3 professional competition, and other tournaments based on age groups. Then, there is ISL’s grassroots initiative, and Reliance Foundation Youth Sports that has already reached out to over 3.3 million children across India.

India will host the Under-17 World Cup in October. How do you think it will impact Indian football?

The timing is perfect for India to host it. The world is keenly watching us and they all want India to succeed. India’s improved ranking and ISL’s high impact has contributed to a positive Indian football story. The World Cup will give a huge boost to grassroots football.

Has Hero MotoCorp shown renewed interest to be associated with ISL? Could you confirm this?

Hero MotoCorp has been a strong supporter of ISL from the beginning. We’re delighted it has extended sponsorship across all Indian football properties, committing over $25 million over next three years. This is a big commitment.

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