New Indian league fires up blasts from the past

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2012, 12:00am


John Barnes lives a life on the move. After taking care of fatherly duties with his 13-month-old son at his Merseyside home this week, the former Liverpool winger hit the road to appear as a studio expert on British television coverage of the FA Cup.

In addition to considerable mileage on Britain's motorways, he spends more than six months of the year travelling to places like South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia to share his views on Europe's top leagues.

Now the 48-year-old faces a journey into the unknown. Barnes will be one of six coaches for a new, all-star soccer tournament in Calcutta starting next month, with the aim of replicating the success of cricket's Indian Premier League. It will be his first visit to India.

'I don't know much more about it than you do, just what came out in the papers this week as I've been dealing though an agent,' he said. 'But I'm really looking forward to visiting a different part of the world and being involved in something new.'

The 79-cap England international will join ex-Thailand and Sunderland boss Peter Reid and former Bolton mentor Colin Todd as big-name managers in the fledgling competition. An auction next Friday will decide which franchises the coaches are aligned to before the February 25 to April 8 tournament.

For Barnes, it will be his first serious foray into management since being sacked by Tranmere Rovers towards the end of 2009. He has also coached Scottish giants Celtic and Jamaica.

'Coaching and being a manager is what I love to do, so it will be great to be out on the pitch again,' he said. 'As it was when I grew up in Jamaica, football isn't the main sport in India, but I hear there's strong support. I hope the tournament is a big success.'

Barnes' former Liverpool teammate Robbie Fowler, a player-coach in the Thailand league, is one of the veteran superstars reported to have signed up. Italy's World-Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro (pictured), ex-French international Robert Pires and former Argentina striker Hernan Crespo are among the pool of 30 foreign players up for grabs for the six teams.

It's a fair bet the tournament will spark a wave of initial interest in the state of West Bengal, which houses the nation's best-supported clubs in Mohun Bagan and Kingfisher East Bengal.

And with Celebrity Management Group signing a 30-year deal with the Indian Football Association, there are ambitious plans to expand the league to other parts of India after the inaugural tournament.

'I think it will be successful but only regionally, not all over India,' said Karim Bencherifa, the Moroccan coach of Indian champions Salgaocar. 'But any sort of publicity of Indian football is good. The ex-stars who will take part will help the popularity, which is very much needed.'

Salgaocar are based in Goa, which along with the southern state of Kerala, is considered the second soccer capital of India. Bencherifa said he wasn't concerned the rival tournament might steal the limelight from the I-League, which is in mid-season.

'The I-League will still be India's main competition and I don't think the new one will affect it in any [negative] way,' he said. 'In fact, it may help in getting more fans in, plus give the opportunity to some players to show their worth and maybe get an I-League contract.'

Every squad will have a mandatory six under-21 Indian players along with a maximum of four foreigners. But the litmus test for the league will be how supporters react once the novelty wears off and they see the difference between perception and the 2012 reality of fading superstars. Football is a more physically demanding sport than cricket and it will be hard to paper over cracks in warm and humid conditions against local players more than a decade younger, however technically inferior.

And there may not be the emotional connection from past battles on Indian soil that feeds cricket's IPL and prolongs and sometimes revives the careers of the long retired. That means that the average sports fan is more than willing to watch an Adam Gilchrist or a Shane Warne past their best.

If ex-Real Madrid marksman Fernando Morientes or former Chelsea import Maniche are labouring around the pitch and struggling to keep up, it is a much more difficult sell.

A kick-around with the great Barnes and some Calcutta street kids might be better entertainment.