New Delhi: India is hoping to boost the popularity of football by launching a new league that will feature veteran players like Robert Pires and Fabio Cannavaro.
A six-team league, modeled in part on cricket's successful Indian Premier League, is set to begin next month, and will also feature players like former Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler and Argentina's Hernan Crespo alongside local talent.
The league is organized by Celebrity Management Group, which has signed a 30-year agreement with the Kolkata-based Indian Football Association to organize the event.
"We have planned a tournament that is tailor-made for Indian fans," Bhaswar Goswami, executive director of CMG told The Associated Press by telephone. "Indians are crazy about big names and we will give them the opportunity to see top stars in action."
The inaugural tournament will be played in the eastern state of West Bengal from February 25 to April 8. Organizers hope the competition will attract fans who currently follow European clubs because of the lack of good domestic teams.
Like in the IPL, the league will hold an auction where the teams can bid for players, with each franchise allowed a budget of $2.5 million in the first year, Goswami said.
Each team will be allowed to have up to four foreign players and a foreign coach. Other players who have signed up include former Spain striker Fernando Morientes, Portugal's Maniche and Argentine defender Juan Pablo Sorin.
"We've been planning this league for over 18 months. We've signed some players and are in the process of signing several others," Goswami said. "The format will ensure that our players get to interact with top players and coaches, which will help rejuvenate our own football."
Though India's national football team is ranked 162nd by FIFA, it qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup by winning a competition for second-tier nations and also reached the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup before losing to the United Arab Emirates.
National body All India Football Federation, which runs its own competition called the I-League, has also managed to bring in big money to the game lately.
IMG-Reliance — a partnership between IMG Worldwide and Indian company Reliance Industries Ltd. — signed a 15-year, $140 million deal in 2010 for all commercial rights to the game in the country, aiming to promote and market football from the grassroots level to the top.
Foreign clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Bayern Munich have also been organizing activities and planning academies in the country in a bid to increase their fan base in this cricket-crazy country of 1.2 billion.