Indian sport keeps throwing up contradictions.
Cricket is wildly popular to begin with and doesn't need professional club leagues to popularize it. And yet the IPL became so popular that it far exceeded the expectations set by it before its launch.
If anything, it has interfered with international schedules and led to controversies over injured cricketers playing and club over country conflicts. Even Sahara cited IPL woes when it pulled out of the sponsorship of the national team (though it patched up later).
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Games like hockey and football desperately need things like clubs to gain popularity but they don't gain traction. For example, the Premier Hockey League (PHL) ran from 2005-08. Some didn't know it had started, while others didn't know it had ended.
The importance of clubs...
But why are clubs important for the development of sport anyway?
Take the example of football, which happens to be the globe's most popular sport. While no-one denies that the World Cup is the most popular tournament, it is club football which takes precedence in between cups.
For example, how many matches has Messi played for Argentina? The answer is 66 and the number of goals he has scored is a mere 19. What about Barcelona? The number of matches is more than triple at 200; the number of goals much greater 146.
So when Messi played for Argentina in Kolkata some time back, fans were disappointed that he didn't score a goal. The chances of seeing a Messi goal would have been much higher had he come on a Barcelona ticket.
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It's always been like that. Pele scored 77 goals in 92 matches for Brazil as against 589 goals in 605 matches for Santos.
This is just a very small example which illustrates the importance of clubs.
In India, a club has a greater chance of being more professional than a domestic team.
A simple example is the way the IPL is being run.
Most people compare IPL to international cricket. But the correct thing to do would be to compare it to domestic cricket. There is no denying that IPL is more professional, more competitive and more lucrative than domestic cricket. It also has the potential of creating a much bigger talent pool.
An IPL-type league is required for every game in India.
The good news is that a lot of people are trying really hard to do that.
Some positive developments...
After cricket, football is probably the most popular sport in India.
While club football in India has been around for ages, it was kick started in 2006, when the I-League was formed with 14 clubs. Interestingly, like ICL, even this was first telecast live by Zee Sports. Of course, it is not doing as financially well as the IPL, but it is an effort nonetheless. The winner also gets to play in the AFC Champions League, Asia's premier club tournament.
Some time back, the International Football Arena held many conferences with the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), FIFA, Chelsea and Bayern Munich on how to improve the standard of the game in India.
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Bangalore Football Stadium has laid an artificial turf, which if it meets FIFA expectations, will be able to hold international matches. That will greatly improve the quality of football in India. Officials want a similar ground in Delhi.
It is such moves that will one day bear fruit.
The Indian Volley League (IVL) also had a low-key start, but it is moves like that which will make volleyball popular.
The success of F1 in Noida has also shown that any kind of sport has the potential to become successful in India. Ten years back it was unthinkable for an Indian to be an F1 driver and improbable for an Indian F1 team; the chances of India hosting an F1 Grand Prix even more remote!
But all that has already happened.
2012: A year of hope
That way 2012 is a great experiment for sports clubs in India.
First up is the World Series Hockey of the Indian Hockey Federation, another brave attempt for which they should be applauded.
This has been fine-tuned to meet international requirements. Youngsters will get a boost and many foreign coaches will contribute. Indian hockey players getting more money will also be welcome. The total prize money will be Rs 10 crores, which is a record for an Indian hockey tournament.
Eight teams will compete in the tournament which will also feature foreign players. In fact, half of the teams have foreign captains. The coaches comprise the best of Indian talent along with overseas professionals.
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After that is the experimental Bengal Premier League Soccer. This will have six teams and each will have an icon player like Hernan Crespo, Fabio Cannavaro, Robbie Fowler etc. This will also hope to get in more money into the game with one club Barasat Euro Musketeers going for Rs 25 crore in the auction.
This tournament will also feature foreign coaches.
Later in the year India will also see a unique American football experiment. There will be ten teams from Sri Lanka and India in the Elite Football League. Apart from the teams from the metros, you will also get to see teams like the Bhubaneshwar Warhawks and Goa Swarm trying to make American football popular in India.
The non-cricket sports situation in India is pretty bleak, but one has to keep trying…
The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger. He blogs at http://sunilrajguru.com/