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India chiefs approve IPL-style league

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India's East Bengal players compete for the ball with Thailand's Chonburi's Chaiman Therdsak (centre) during their AFC Cup match at Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on March 2, 2011. India's football chiefs backed a proposal to hold a new tournament inspired by cricket's popular Indian Premier League, despite fierce opposition from the country's top clubs. (AFP/File)

India's football chiefs on Thursday backed a proposal to hold a new tournament inspired by cricket's popular Indian Premier League, despite fierce opposition from the country's top clubs.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) gave the green signal to its commercial partners, IMG-Reliance, to hold the franchise-based tournament early next year featuring as-yet-unnamed international and local stars.

AIFF president Praful Patel said his federation was satisfied by a detailed presentation made by IMG-Reliance on Thursday and predicted the new tournament would give Indian football a boost.

"Through this tournament we are looking to popularise Indian football and take the game to the masses," Patel told reporters. "It will have players from around the world."

Top Indian clubs have declined to release their players for the January-March tournament, saying it will threaten their existence and ruin the national I-League domestic competition.

"I do not understand why the AIFF wants to hold a new league," said Valanka Alemao, the chief executive officer of popular Goa-based club Churchill Brothers.

"This new entity will eventually supersede the I-League and cause the slow death of existing clubs. How does it help if you get some retired or semi-retired players to play?"

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri admitted on Thursday that fellow players were sceptical about the proposed tournament due to the rift between the AIFF and clubs.

"The players are sceptical because they don't know where they stand," Chhetri said. "They are not sure whether to join a club or sign up with the new tournament."

AIFF's Patel was, however, confident the matter can be resolved with the clubs.

"There is no real problem," he said, adding that an AIFF delegation will hold meetings with the clubs to address their concerns.

"The I-league is our number one priority and it will remain so in the future also," he said. "All the issues will be sorted out amicably."

India are currently ranked a lowly 146th in the world, but the sport's popularity in the cricket-mad nation has grown due to live television coverage of matches played around the globe.

Last year, football officials in West Bengal state had announced plans for a similar franchised-based league that would feature semi-retired stars like Argentina's Hernan Crespo and Fabio Cannavaro of Italy playing alongside district-level players.

But the tournament fell through, reportedly due to lack of proper infrastructure in the state and lack of interest shown by the AIFF.

The IPL is a money-spinning Twenty20 annual competition in which top stars from around the world play for rich team owners for huge fees.