Premier Futsal | The next big thing in India or another doomed league?

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Premier Futsal | The next big thing in India or another doomed league?

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Arun S Kaimal

07/14/2016

Ronaldinho, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Hernan Crespo—when the organisers of the Premier Futsal tournament announced these names on Tuesday, there was a feeling of disbelief in the sports community of India. After all, even the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL) failed to bring in these stars.

But apart from the big names roped in by the organisers, Premier Futsal remains an unknown entity for the general public even on the eve of the tournament. With last-minute announcements and disputes with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) still hanging over their heads, the question remains whether the league can find its place in India?

Futsal, which is a shorter version of football, with 20-minute halves, five-a-side teams, and indoor courts has been popular in urban India for the past few years. Although it is popular in metros with small tournaments being conducted in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata every year, it has usually been looked at as a step brother of football. The All India Football Federation never considered it as a big sport, but it all changed in 2016.

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It all started in April this year, when Portuguese football legend Luis Figo arrived in India to announce the launch of India’s first-ever multi-national futsal league – the Premier Futsal League. The organisers then promised eight city-based franchises, similar to the Indian Super League (ISL) or the Indian Premier League (IPL). The formula was simple and it became another sports league to be launched in India after the arrival of IPL in 2008.

The arrival of stars did not stop there. Indian Test captain Virat Kohli joined the league as its brand ambassador before shaking his leg with music maestro AR Rahman for the Premier Futsal anthem. On the field, former Barcelona star Deco and ‘the Pele of Futsal’, Falcao, were also roped in as everything looked hunky-dory.

But, troubles also followed soon. The world football governing body, FIFA, expressed concerns about the league in a letter to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Indian body swung into action by threatening the Premier Futsal with legal action. They also informed the Sports Ministry that Futsal Association of India (FAI), the organisers of Premier Futsal League, is an unrecognised body and asked its members not to cooperate with the event. Within days, the All India Football Federation announced that they will come with their own futsal league. The fight for supremacy was on.

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Also, read: Does the AIFF's 3-tier plan actually signal a turn for the better in Indian football?

A sport, which has been relatively unknown in India, was caught in the middle of a battle as AIFF and FAI took on each other in an attempt to become the real governing body of futsal. A similar fight has been going on at the international level since 1985 between FIFA and the Asociación Mundial de Futsal (AMF). FAI was recognised by AMF and the fight in India was another way of FIFA taking on the AMF.

Amidst all the controversies, July 15, the opening day of the league, came closer and closer. The schedule, marquee players, franchises, owners all remained a mystery as they kept on promising to unveil everything soon. When it finally came out on July 12, three days before the opening match, it was huge.

Two-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldinho, Futsal legend Falcao, Manchester United legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, former Real Madrid player Michel Salgado, and former Argentina forward Hernan Crespo were all announced as marquee players for the six franchises. From big media companies to film stars, the Chennai, Mumbai, Kochi, Goa, Kolkata, and Bangalore based franchises roped in big names as the league once again made it to the headlines.

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But, among all the euphoria surrounding the arrival of superstar footballers, everyone turned a blind eye towards the dropping of two franchises. Delhi and Hyderabad were no longer in the picture after initially planning an eight-team league. To add to it, the superstar players arrived just a day before the opening match. The marquee superstars have been away from playing football for a long time and it is highly improbable to expect them to light up the court during the league. They will surely bring the eyeballs to the games, but the amount of playing time for them is likely to be limited with the league running only for 10 days. With rolling substitutions also part of the tournament, the superstars will be there to attract the audience rather than to mesmerise the fans with their skills.

A 10-day tournament is unlikely to create any development of the sport, which was not even considered as a premier sport a few months back. But, the arrival of the Ronaldinho and co will attract the much-needed attention to Futsal and it may help the sport grow. But, one thing we have learned from all the franchise leagues in India is that apart from the glitz and glamour, the tournaments usually do not bring anything to the sport. Hopefully, Premier Futsal will not be another one in that list.

Also, read: From IPL to PWL: A country of Leagues

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