Once upon a time, there seemed only two options for footballers whose knees had gone and who didn't fancy an Umbro windbreaker with their initials on it: pubs or punditry. These faded stars were given a Sophie's Career Choice: reporting about broken deadlocks and dogs on the pitch from the media area at Deepdale, or running a green-belt boozer, with the option to occasionally supplement your earnings by speaking after weddings or, in the case of Michael Branch, doing small-time coke deals.
You see, players were more mortal then, they didn't get anything like David Beckham's weird afterlife as a Burberry humanitarian. Even during their careers many lived in the equivalent of Barratt Home developments rather than Ballardian gated communities; they drove Saabs rather than matte grey Lamborghinis; they played a lot of golf. For the simple fact that there just wasn't as much money around, footballers were more knowable, more approachable and more human. I remember the days when you could stand in Chelsea's old Harlington training ground and get Gianfranco Zola's autograph most mornings. I have a vague recollection of seeing Gerry Francis at Legoland, and nobody seemed to care that much. He was just a man with a head like a werewolf, taking his kids to a theme park. Were Beckham to do that, the photos would be all over your Facebook feed the next day. But when the players of yore retired, they were simply reintroduced into wider society, like long-serving postmen or likeable head teachers.
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But as the dream of the European leagues spreads beyond the shores of this continent, when even the lowliest Premier League sides have a Filipino fan club, when hooliganism hits America, when Danny Simpson hangs out with NFL players in Miami, when Stoke City can afford to buy the most exciting team of 2009, when medical developments mean that you can play on for longer – when all of these things are possible, packing it in to take over the Fox & Horses in Cheshunt seems less and less appealing.
So what we end up with is something like the Indian Super League, a travelling roadshow of not-quite-ex-professionals playing mercenary in a developing nation, taking wedges of dubious money and playing through the pain to half-full stadiums, like Buffalo Bill, doing his old Wild West Show well into the 20th century, but with Roger Johnson and Didier Zokora whipping the horses.
The Indian Super League has only been going for one year but to me, it's fast becoming the most fascinating prospect in world football. For decades we've been hearing the endless "USA! USA!"-style fanfare about what's going on in the MLS, about how it's definitely going to take off, and this summer the latest influx of Pro Evo 5's top-rated players sauntered off to bask in the monied sunsets of their careers in America. But in reality the idea of Pirlo and Lampard playing together in New York doesn't excite many people outside of the States, just as Beckham's time at LA Galaxy was reduced to the occasional YouTube video and a few photo-ops with Jeremy Piven. The MLS is for people who've never seen a League Cup replay, never had to show their season ticket to avoid a beating, never dodged a sniffer dog at the entrance to the Matthew Harding Lower. It is for Americans, people who genuinely tried to split the game into four quarters to maximise the advertising. The world isn't waiting and hoping that they finally take to it any more, it's too busy watching the Champions League.
The Indian Super League, however, is a much more fascinating prospect, a strange neo-colonial fantasy in which David Platt manages a team in Maharashtra funded by a Bollywood star, featuring the diverse talents of Adrian Mutu and Nicky Shorey. But while a lot of people have begun to take notice of Pune City's devil-may-care transfer policy (as well as their fantastic social media game), the ISL goes way beyond the Pune.
The MLS might have the household names but the Super League has the cool names, the weird names, the "Fuck me, is he still going?" and the "I'd actually love to watch him play again" names. A quick scour of the Wikipedia reveals such delights as Helder Postiga turning out for reigning champs Atletico de Kolkata in West Bengal; football's most famous GBH victim Marco Materazzi managing ex-Man City midfielder Elano deep in Tamil territory; Jon Arne Riise bringing his spectacular ginger foot to the Delhi Dynamos under the guidance of Roberto Carlos; Lucio taking over from Robert Pires as the star man in the hippy paradise of Goa; the recently disgraced Nicolas Anelka both managing Mumbai City and forming a strike partnership up top with Frederic Picquionne; Stephen Bywater manning the posts at the brilliantly named Kerala Blasters.
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Something about this collection of players seems so much more fascinating, so much more exciting and so much more endearing than the predictable pizazz of the MLS. The majority of MLS stars are ones who've never put a foot wrong, who'll end up working with UNICEF and having dinner with Pele, whereas the ISL is a league full of feckless, highly strung prima donnas, sociopathic thugs and people the wrong side of drugs bans. Even as a Chelsea fan, I can't be arsed with watching a 38-year-old Lampard putting six past some amateur keeper in Ohio. I want to see Nicolas Anelka spitting at a referee, I want to see fat Brazilians attempting overhead kicks, I want to see Peter Ramage in 40-degree heat. I am not interested in the MLS's weird American Valhalla, in footballing afterlives – I'm interested in second chances and people who are simply refusing to retire.
This grand project is already imbued with a kind of romance for me, watching all these warhorses and nearly-men signing up, it starts to feel like a Graham Greene novel, a story of troubled men trying to make it in a new world. The ISL doesn't seem to be about retirement, it seems to be about redemption. I think it could become cult viewing for anyone who isn't thrilled about the prospect of watching Sergio Aguero drag the entire Premier League behind him for the next nine months.
For all the MLS's pomp and ceremony, it still feels like a cynical ploy to trick a rich continent into loving something it will probably never love. The Indian Super League is bringing the weird part of football to a continent that already loves it, and it's bound to be a richer experience because of that.
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