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Ljungberg ready for Indian Super League
01:44 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Ten-week tournament features mostly Indian players, as well as some high-profile foreign stars

Despite having a population of 1.2 billion, India's national team is ranked 158th in the world

Football is looking to compete with other sports like cricket

But India lacks even basic infrastructure for the sport to grow and prosper

Delhi CNN  — 

On Sunday, about 100,000 Indian spectators – including a bevy of India’s top celebrities and corporate bigwigs – will pack into a stadium to watch two teams go at each other with everything they’ve got.

No, it’s not cricket. It’s not even hockey.

It’s football and the all-new, swish, Indian Super League.

The 10-week tournament features mostly Indian players, but also a number of “marquee” European soccer stars, admittedly out of their prime but still huge draws: former Juventus strikers Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet, and former Arsenal attackers Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg.

The stated aim of the league is to promote the beautiful game in India, a country of 1.2 billion people that has long languished in football’s global rankings –158th in the world on FIFA’s latest list.

Similar to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the U.S., eight franchise teams from across India will face off against each other twice each before heading to a set of play-offs in December.

As a mandatory requirement, each team must consist of 14 Indian domestic players and four local players from the same state. The teams have entered alliances with several high profile European clubs including Atlético Madrid, Feyenoord, and Fiorentina.

Ljungberg, a member of Arsenal’s famous 2004 “Invincibles” squad is now the public face for Mumbai City FC. When CNN caught up with him in Mumbai, he said: “I went to the U.S. to promote the game there, and it worked really well. I want do the same thing here.

“I feel like I can give something back to football,” says Ljungberg.

However, competing with cricket as the numero uno sport will be an uphill challenge.

India’s cricket craze

India has always been a cricket-crazy nation. While the few football stadiums in the country remain empty, Indians rarely miss an opportunity to see their cricket team play, flocking in the tens of thousands to cheer the “Men in Blue.”

Their team has performed well in recent years, a major highlight being the 2011 World Cup triumph on home soil. The Indian team was also ranked number one in the world at one stage, at both Test cricket and One Day International cricket – the sport’s two most popular versions.

The country’s cricket governing body, the BCCI, is the richest and most influential in the sport, capitalizing on India’s appetite through multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals and broadcasting rights.

Indian football, on the other hand, is its indigent cousin. India lacks even basic infrastructure for the sport to grow and prosper. There are only six stadiums that meet the current FIFA guidelines; maintaining them to international standards has been a regular concern.

The latest FIFA World Rankings places India at a humbling 158th place, eight down from the previous month. India is set to slip further after losing to Palestine last week.

The national team has failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup since 1950 and the last time it tasted success at an international sporting event was more than five decades ago, when it managed to beat South Korea to win the 1962 Asian Games.

A football revival?

The Indian Super League aspires to become the premier football league in India, providing a platform to unearth domestic talent. The hope is that a cocktail of big corporate money, Bollywood’s glitz, and some of Europe’s former superstars will help local players further develop their skills, and boost interest.

Indian broadcasters are betting on a big response. Sanjay Gupta, the chief operating officer of Star India, told CNN the games will be available on an unprecedented number of platforms.

“We are broadcasting the games in five different languages. Hindi and English is the norm. But for the first time, we’re also broadcasting in Bengali, Malayalam, and Kannada.”

There are more than 80 million Bengali speakers in India, and more than 30 million each of Malayalam and Kannada.

Ljungberg thinks the Super League can transform the sport in India.

“If I can help inspire the kids, then that’s the future of Indian football,” he said.

As top European soccer clubs look to capture more fans in Asia, perhaps they will face competition for Indian viewers from an unexpected source: Indian clubs.

Read more: While Indian football sleeps, its young hopefuls dream