Its backers include some of the biggest names in Indian sport, business and Bollywood who hope it will help the country shed its image as the sleeping giant of world soccer.
But the Indian Super League (ISL), which promises to lure a galaxy of former stars out of retirement, is already facing scepticism and even downright hostility from within the game some five months ahead of kick-off.
“It’s going to kill the sleeping giant without allowing it a chance to wake up and get out of bed,” said Valanka Alemao, chief executive of Churchill Brothers, ex-champions of India’s domestic league.
“This is such a weak-structured tournament that it’s bound to fail.”
Despite being the second-most populous nation, India has long struggled in world football and is ranked 145th out of 207 in FIFA’s rankings.
The sleeping giant tag was first coined by FIFA president Sepp Blatter on a visit to India in 2007 but, with even war-torn Syria and Afghanistan ranked higher, some wags have said the snooze has become a coma.
Cricket dominates the back pages but matches in the existing I-League domestic championship attract significant crowds in some parts of the country, and the English Premiership is a major driver behind the growth of satellite TV in India.
So it was no surprise when Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV was revealed as one of the backers of the new ISL along with other big names such as sports management giant IMG.
And in an echo of the format for the glitzy Indian Premier League (IPL), it was announced last week that eight city-based franchises with famous frontmen would take part in the two-month competition from September.
Co-owners include cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar, Bollywood A-listers Salman Khan and Ranbir Kapoor as well as Atletico Madrid, leaders of Spain’s La Liga.
Nita Ambani, chairwoman of the joint venture IMG-Reliance marketing group which conceived the league concept, forecast that it would pave the way for “the nation’s sporting renaissance”.
“Football, with its largely untapped potential in the country, has the opportunity to grow to an unrivalled commercial success quite unlike any other sport,” Ambani, wife of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, said.
A more-measured assessment came from former national cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, co-owner of the Kolkata franchise. He said the league could be a force for good even if it did not supplant cricket as India’s No.1 game.
“Don’t compare it with the IPL or cricket,” Ganguly told AFP.
“It’s the start of something good. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, things will improve.”
Each of the eight teams will be allowed to draft 10 foreign players, with a proviso that at least 50 of them in the 80-man pool should have played for their national teams.
But with ISL dates clashing with the start of major leagues around the world and organisers facing stiff opposition from local clubs, finalising the foreign and Indian talent will not be easy.
“Let’s face it, India is a non-entity in world football and will find it tough to attract top players,” the country’s best-known football writer Novy Kapadia told AFP.
“At the most, you will get second-string players, mainly from Africa, or those unlucky ones who are not contracted to any club. The September-November window just does not make sense. This whole thing is a gimmick.”
Similar plans last year by football officials in the state of West Bengal for a franchise-based league featuring fading stars like Crespo and Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro failed to take off.