LAST OCTOBER, British footballer Gary Hooper became the “best-ever signing” of Wellington Phoenix, a club from New Zealand that plays in Australia’s A-League. With nearly 200 goals in the premier leagues of England and Scotland as well as the Champions League, Hooper was the highest-paid player on the club’s roster. Then, the pandemic struck.
Today, the 32-year-old centre forward is part of the Indian Super League (ISL) side Kerala Blasters FC, which will pay him Rs 1.5 crore for eight months’ service. Hooper isn’t the only player from Down Under who has been lured to the ISL, which will be held in a bio-secure environment in Goa starting next month. As A-League clubs deal with pandemic-induced financial distress, the ISL teams have been able to sign players who, in pre-Covid times, would be beyond their budgets.
“There is a lot of financial uncertainty there (A-League) at the moment and players want to know when they will be getting paid and that they will be receiving their full salary,” striker Joel Chianese, who has joined Hyderabad FC from Perth Glory, tells The Indian Express.
Chianese and Hooper are part of an impressive ensemble, which will be headlined by Englishman Adam Le Fondre. Regarded as a club legend at Sydney FC, with a wealth of Premier League experience, Le Fondre is set to join City Football Group-owned Mumbai City on loan because of a proposed wage cut at Sydney. Earlier this month, Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler was named the manager of SC East Bengal following his Covid-forced exit from Brisbane Roar. Newcastle Jets defender James Donachie has joined Asian Champions League-bound FC Goa on loan while midfielder Brad Inman has moved from Brisbane Roar to ATK Mohun Bagan, where he will join Roy Krishna, named the best player of the A-League for the 2018-19 season.
Add to the mix the continuing influx of players who have the experience of playing in the second and third tier of Spanish football, and the ISL can boast of having arguably the most stellar line-up of foreigners in a year when several leagues across the world are reeling because of the financial slump.
“In terms of the quality of foreign players, this is the best seen in Indian football,” says Mandar Tamhane, the chief executive of former ISL champions Bengaluru FC. “When we are interacting with prospective players, they want to come to India maybe because they know and are aware of how good the league is getting and obviously there is good money too. These are all good players who have played at a very good level and done exceedingly well.”
Chianese says the pandemic is just one part of the reason why a lot of players are looking at India. The salaries of players in the A-League were already getting slashed owing to a reduction in broadcast fee, which is the largest source of revenue for the league and the clubs.
On the other hand, the teams in the ISL — it was started in 2014 and took over from the I-League as India’s top division last year — haven’t relied on TV revenue since the broadcaster, Star Sports, is the co-owner of the league along with Reliance Sports. Instead, most of the teams are funded by corporates, who dole out anything between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 3.5 crore a year to a foreign player.
In Asian football, India is still behind China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Gulf states in terms of player wages, but Chianese says the players “understand there is also a financial gain moving to the ISL compared to the game in Australia at this moment”.
“Sometimes it just takes one (player) to make the move and others follow, or perhaps the ISL clubs have shown great interest in the Australian game and the way we are as players,” he says.
The interest has been growing. In 2017, Bengaluru FC’s midfield duo of Erik Paartalu and Dimas Delgado were among the few players with A-League experience. Last year, too, two players — Krishna and David Williams (both ATK Mohun Bagan) — joined the ISL from A-League. This year, the number, including SC East Bengal manager Fowler and his assistant Tony Grant, is close to a dozen. And by the time the league begins in the second half of November, more will have joined.
Sujay Sharma, Hyderabad FC’s director of football, acknowledges the pandemic made it easier for them to shop for players but insists that the players, too, felt safe to come and play in the bubble created in Goa.
“Due to the pandemic, it became easier (to look for players in) countries like Australia or certain parts of Spain,” Sharma says. “But given the fact that the ISL has gone ahead and planned things in a professional way, it has given a lot of confidence to the players and their families to seriously consider it as an option. So the financial angle has been easier, but there is a human angle as well.”
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