Can football really rival cricket in India? Yes, says Michael Chopra

By Nikesh RughaniBBC Asian Network
Chopra has played club football in England, Scotland, Wales and now India
Chopra has played club football in England, Scotland, Wales and now India

Former Newcastle United and Sunderland striker Michael Chopra has told the BBC that he thinks football could become the number one sport in cricket-mad India in the next 10 years.

Crazy talk or a valid view? BBC Asian Network takes a closer look at the hugely popular Indian Super League, which reaches its climax this weekend.

Who is Chopra?

The 32-year-old striker currently plays for the Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League (ISL), football's version of IPL cricket.

He began his career with English side Newcastle United and also enjoyed spells with Barnsley, Cardiff City, Sunderland, Ipswich and Blackpool.

Chopra, who has an Indian father, is in his second stint with the Blasters.

The former England youth international played for them in 2014 and then returned in 2016 after a stint with Scottish club Alloa Athletic.

Who are the Blasters?

They are one of eight teams competing in the ISL, which started in 2014.

They are managed by former Reading boss and England international Steve Coppell and possess players like Chopra, former Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes and ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Graham Stack.

They are mainly made up of Indian players but also have a Frenchman, a Spaniard as well as players from Haiti, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

More significantly, they are part-owned by Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and have reached this year's final, which will be played on Sunday.

What about the other teams?

There are seven other sides, based in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Guwahati and Margoa.

Legendary Brazilian Zico and Italian World Cup-winning duo Marco Materrazi and Gianluca Zambrotta are among the other managers.

There are numerous players fans will have heard of, too, notably John Arne Riise, Florent Malouda, Lucio, Diego Forlan and Mohamed Sissoko.

Among the other owners are Bollywood stars Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham and Salman Khan, retired Indian cricketer Sourav Ganguly, current Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli and Spanish football giants Atletico Madrid.

What's the standard like?

A quota system means that the majority of squads have to be made up of Indian-born players, but Chopra says standards have improved significantly.

"When I first came, the standard was poor," he says. "But this season you can see a total difference in the players. It's benefiting Indian football."

Some Indian players have started to make their way to decent clubs.

Ishan Pandita, 18, has just been signed for La Liga side Leganes, while 19-year-old Ashique Kuruniyan now plays for Villareal's academy side.

What's the attraction for foreign players?

Former Juventus star Del Piero helped Italy win the World Cup in 2006
Former Juventus star Del Piero helped Italy win the World Cup in 2006

Money is clearly a factor. In the first season of the ISL, recently retired players like Alessandro Del Piero and Robert Pires were signed up to raise the profile of the league and were given big-money contracts.

Del Piero was paid around £1.17m in the first season. Not bad for three months of work. Each team's salary cap for foreign players this season is £1.81m.

Baljit Rihal is a British football agent who represents Blasters head coach Coppell and goalkeeper Stack.

"The initial attraction is the money," says Rihal. "I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that India speaks English. It's a lifestyle choice."

What about the calibre of foreign players?

Del Piero and Pires were joined by fellow international stars David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka, David James, Luis Garcia, Freddie Ljungberg and Joan Capdevila for the first season of the ISL.

Ex-Chelsea star Malouda and former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan have been stand-out players this season.

Aged 36 and 37 respectively, they are much closer to their best years than some of the so-called 'marquee' players in the first season of the league.

So how much interest is there in the ISL?

There has seen significant growth in audiences since its inaugural season.

According to host broadcaster Star Sports India, more than 200 million unique viewers have tuned in to watch the action on television in India.

Those numbers are expected to rise significantly in the run-up to Sunday's final.

Attendances are impressive, too. The average crowd last season was just over 27,000, up from around 24,300 in 2014, while the biggest crowd was 68,340, up from 65,000 in 2014.

The numbers of younger players appears to be growing. The I-League, which is an under-18 competition, now has 37 teams after starting with 16 back in 2011.

How do these numbers compare with cricket?

The IPL, which is the richest cricket league in the world, was watched by just over 350 million people in India last year.

It also attracted an average crowd of 31,000.

Cricket remains very popular in the parks of India's big cities, although you'll see kids kicking a ball around in the street in places like Goa and West Bengal.

Has the ISL helped Indian football?

Critics have accused the ISL of being just another cash rich league, with no benefit for the national side.

But India, who have never been close to qualifying for a World Cup, have seen a marked improvement in their results.

They have won five out of seven games in 2016, including an impressive 4-1 victory over Puerto Rico on 3 September.

As a result, the national side is now up to 137 in the Fifa world rankings.

So how will Sunday's final go?

Postiga played 71 times for Portugal, scoring 27 goals
Postiga played 71 times for Portugal, scoring 27 goals

The Blasters, who finished second in the table after 14 games, take on Atletico de Kolkata, who finished fourth.

It's a repeat of the 2014 final, which Kolkata won.

Kerala will be hoping striker C.K. Vineeth continues his scoring form after bagging five so far this season. They will also have home advantage, given the final takes place at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi.

Former Portugal and Tottenham striker Helder Postiga is the star player for Kolkata, who are part-owned by Ganguly and Atletico Madrid.

They can also call on former Tranmere, Leicester City, Barnsley and Preston forward Iain Hume, who was previously at Kerala and is the ISL's all time leading scorer with 23 goals. He has seven this season.