The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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On Sunday afternoon in a Calcutta hotel, there was a surfeit of sportsmen. And one of them — Oliver Kahn — happened to be a more familiar figure across the globe than all the Knight Riders plus their owner put together. But this is mere trivia, not even worthy of being a footnote in history. Bayern Munich will remain one of the foreign football clubs that visit Calcutta from time to time to play matches of little consequence. There is a high chance, on the other hand, that the Knight Riders — if they can do just a little better next season — will go down in history as the catalyst that facilitated Calcutta’s belated entry into sporting modernity.

This is not an attempt to get into another of those ‘Indian cricket versus Indian football’ debates. In fact, I want no more than to point out that the Germans may not be the most engaging speakers in the world, but they can always be banked on for a bit of enlightenment.

It was Uli Hoeness, Bayern Munich’s general manager, who gently tapped a remarkable idea in. Answering an apparently innocent question on the huge number of foreign players in the popular European leagues, he called up the usual suspect, globalization, to explain why “you can’t do anything about Italians playing in the German league and vice versa”. And then he cited the example of the English club, Arsenal, which has played Champions League matches without a single English player in its eleven.

There you have it. Hoeness has just given India a win-win formula. The National Football League, the first pro-league in the country, was kicked off last year. What it needs now is to reinvent itself with brand-new teams, chock-full of foreign stars. Knowing the AIFF’s urge to keep things on a tight leash, it might want to put a ceiling on the number of teams. Eight, maybe? Extravagant auctions are not required when there’s the Indian diaspora. Priya Ranjan Das Munshi can take a quick world tour to brief ever-willing NRIs about the revolutionary new league. It goes without saying that the NRIs will have to show their love for the motherland not only by negotiating with high-profile clubs on acquiring players, but also by spending money on building — from scratch — the Indian soccer infrastructure so that international stars don’t refuse to take the field.

Hoeness was heard ruing the fact that there’s no Roman Abramovich to shower euros on Bayern. India, of course, has no such problem, thank god for the Ambanis and Bollywood. Finding eight soccer-loving rich men (and women) will be a cakewalk —though, in order to avoid complications, the AIFF must ensure that no two team-owners support the same international club (in particular, Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal and Real Madrid). The franchisees, too, must make sure that they share their smallest ideas with Big Brother AIFF. Or their players will suddenly face hurdles with transfer fees, visas and suchlike.

If you’ve followed the plan so far, all you have to do now is close your eyes and imagine the Thiruvananthapuram Typhoons taking on Phagwara Patakhas in JCT-town. Doesn’t it make for a jolly good frame?

The IPL — sorry about the cricket reference again — has shown that Indians have no problems accepting foreign players as their representatives. Nor has anyone heard of Arsenal fans forsaking their club on account of the absent Englishmen. True, Indian soccer clubs have had foreign players for many years now, but it is time these men were sourced from the first eleven of top-notch clubs rather than third- division outfits. What better time to cash in on the satellite-TV-driven fan base here of Premier League clubs and their stars?

What will happen to the national side? Nothing very different from what would have happened in the normal course of events. It would take India, according to AFC chief Mohammed bin Hammam’s reliable calculations, a hundred years from now to qualify for a world cup. With only foreign players playing in the national league, it might take two hundred. But is it a big price to pay to see Indian clubs make a mark in the world? Talking of Arsenal, Hoeness did refer to England not qualifying for Euro this year. But do Arsenal fans mind?

And what happens to the Bhaichung Bhutias and Mahesh Gawlis? Pardon my final cricket reference, but could we please wait for a year and ask the non-IPL Ranji Trophy players?

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