- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NEW DELHI (AP) - As far as football authorities are concerned, it’s the names in the games that will drive the growth of the sport in India.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke says marquee players like Luis Garcia, Alessandro Del Piero and Robert Pires in the Indian Super League will help unlock the “huge potential” on the sub-continent.

“It’s important because these stars are who kids everywhere are dreaming about,” Valcke was quoted as telling the ISL website. But he also stressed that it was just as important for fans to see Indian players in action alongside foreign stars if football is to flourish in the longer term.

“It shouldn’t be, as we have seen at some European clubs, that none of the local players are playing in the XI,” Valcke said. “We always have to maintain a balance between local players and international stars. That’s how you create strong footballers in the country.”

Eight city-based clubs, each with a quota of seven foreigners plus a marquee player, are competing in the inaugural edition of the ISL. The remaining 14 spots in in each squad are reserved for Indian players, including four from the local city.

“What is important is that whenever you do something at the top level, you don’t forget about the grassroots programs and to develop football at the level of the kids,” Valcke said. “The ISL is helping; the Indian league (I-League) is there as well. We must make sure that we’re all together with one goal - to develop football in India and help India play in the World Cup sooner!”

The ISL has already drawn big crowds, with 60,000 attending the opening match at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium. There were 35,000 in New Delhi to watch the Delhi Dynamos take on Pune City on Tuesday, Valcke said, “and the way they supported their team and the game itself was amazing.”

Valcke said India hosting the under-17 World Cup in 2017 would also help in the long run, particularly with infrastructure.

He said he met with Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to reinforce the importance of support to develop a bigger infrastructure.

“We need more pitches, and give all Indians more ways to play the sport,” he said.

“It is all a part of the project of development of football. We’re working on a strategic plan till 2017 and will then move on to the next phase of 10 years. Football is strong enough to become the second sport in India (after cricket),” he added during an exchange with the media on Wednesday.

Valcke also said that if the under-17 World Cup in 2017 was a success “naturally the next step should be to be bid for the under-20 World Cup.”

The ISL has been the most highly anticipated pro league in India since cricket’s Indian Premier League was launched, surpassing interest for similar competitions in more traditionally popular games in India like field hockey and kabaddi.

Indian football fans have long followed European leagues with enthusiasm, but so far that hasn’t translated into a big following at home. The national team is ranked 158th by FIFA.

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