JAMIE McAllister knew he had entered a whole new world when he went down for breakfast one morning and discovered an elephant at the back door. His family had wanted to see one at the sanctuary two hours from their hotel in Kochi, but a member of staff, from whom McAllister had asked directions, came up with a better idea.
“I’ll phone my friend,” said the man. “He’s got an elephant.”
According to McAllister, this chap made it sound like the most natural thing in the world, “as if it was a dog or something”. The 36-year-old Scottish defender had seen a lot since he signed up to play in the Indian Super League, but this was something else again, especially for his wife and four children, who had joined him for a fortnight’s holiday.
“The craziest thing was the night before, saying to the kids, ‘look, there’s going to be an elephant coming to see you at the hotel tomorrow’. They’re like ‘yeah right dad’. Next morning, there it is, out the back of the hotel, a 40-year-old elephant with the head-dress and all the gear on. And the kids are sitting on it, taking pictures and stroking it.”
It was for days like these that McAllister, released in the summer by Yeovil Town, chose not to see out his career in the usual fashion. The Glasgow-born left-back had envisaged spending another year in England’s lower divisions or joining Kilmarnock, with whom he had talks, but that was before the phone call that brought the opportunity of a lifetime. That was before David James offered him a passage to India.
The former England goalkeeper, with whom he played at Bristol City, had been appointed manager of a franchise in the inaugural ISL, and he wanted McAllister to join him on the backroom staff. “I wasn’t sure my wife would let me away with it, but I managed to convince her,” says the Scot who could not have dreamed, during spells with Aberdeen, Livingston and Hearts, that something so exotic lay in store.
Since becoming player-coach of Kerala Blasters, where he has got to know their co-owner, Sachin Tendulkar (aka the Master Blaster), McAllister’s world has turned on its axis. Together with the former Celtic and Motherwell player, Stephen Pearson (another Blasters recruit), he has come up against some of the biggest names in world football, experienced some of its largest crowds and become a celebrity in the process.
It has also been a nice little earner, although McAllister insists that the biggest reward is not financial. “Obviously the money is good, but it was also a chance for me to get into coaching. And, when I looked at this new league, it was just too good to turn down. I mean, it’s huge. I could have taken the easy option and stayed at home, but it’s been a chance to experience a different country, a different culture. It’s really opened my eyes to what’s out there.”
Such as the heat and humidity in which they play matches, even at night. And the subcontinent’s seething masses, by turn mellow and manic. “The lifestyle is just totally different. It’s so relaxed. They take forever to do anything... apart from when they are on the roads. Then, they are in a rush. The roads are crazy. There are no rules. You drive past people who are walking camels down the street.”
It has all come as a bit of a culture shock to McAllister, as has his newfound status. Suddenly, the player whose one Scotland appearance was in a 4-1 win against Trinidad & Tobago a decade back is being treated like royalty. For the four months that the ISL season lasts, he lives in a five-star hotel, with all the food, travel and living expenses taken care of. Only when he is out and about is he exposed to the other half of India’s social divide.
“There’s very rich and there’s very poor, and there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. There’s a big mall we go to, about 15 minutes from here. As soon as you walk in, you are swamped with fans. It’s like being a Premier League player back home. The attention you get is incredible. People follow you into shops to get photos and signatures. It’s just mad. They love a photo.”
After a few false starts, the ISL isn’t just up and running, it is flying. Despite fears that it would be another Qatar-style retirement home for past-it players seeking one last payday, fans have flocked to the first season in such numbers that they are talking about a seismic change to the world’s football map. The new league recently claimed to be the fourth most popular on the planet, surpassing Serie A with its attendance figures. Ahead of their semi-final first leg against Chennaiyin yesterday, the Blasters were expecting their 60,000-capacity stadium to be full, with another 20,000 locked out.
The ISL semi-finals bring together the top four finishers in a league of eight franchises. Modelled on cricket’s Indian Premier League, the concept has been bankrolled by IMG, the global sports marketing company, and Reliance Industries. Together, they hope to engage the country’s 1.2 billion population and waken what FIFA president Sepp Blatter described as a “sleeping giant”. Not for much longer do they want India’s national side to be ranked 170 in the world.
Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV broadcasts the star-studded matches to a weekly audience of 170 million. In the Chennaiyin squad for yesterday’s game were Elano, Alessandro Nesta and Mikael Silvestre. Luis Garcia, Alessandro del Piero and Nicolas Anelka are also among the league’s household names. Its coaches include Zico, Marco Materazzi and Peter Reid.
Perhaps the masterstroke was a long-term ownership system, which required bidders to pay $25m for a ten-year franchise. The successful consortiums comprise a mixture of Bollywood A-listers and iconic cricket stars, including Tendulkar, with whom McAllister has been known to share lunch.
“He’s been superb,” says the Scot. “He will come to the games and speak to us in the dressing room, maybe give us a little pep talk before kick-off. He’s like God over here. I don’t think there’s anybody more famous in India than Sachin. It’s been amazing to meet such an icon, to be sitting having lunch with him and stuff. He signed a cricket bat for my kids. He’s such a genuine guy, so humble and easy to talk to.”
McAllister is convinced that Tendulkar and the rest will pull it off. Some fear for the old I League, a more natural competition, which operates on a traditional system of promotion and relegation, but the ISL believes it can do for Indian football what the MLS has done for soccer in the US. Only by stimulating interest at the top can they maximise growth at the bottom. All the successful franchise bidders signed an agreement to build youth academies. In 2017, India will host the Under-17 World Cup. ISL rules stipulate that every team must have at least five Indian players on the pitch at all times. “Working with the Indian boys has been a pleasure,” says McAllister. “They haven’t had much coaching, but they’re so eager to learn. They work their socks off. And we’re learning from them as well.”
The season started in early October. Just reaching the semi-finals is an achievement for Kerala, who cannot quite boast the others’ strength in depth. As well as Pearson and James, who still plays in goal, McAllister’s team-mates include Iain Hume, the Edinburgh-born Canadian striker, and Michael Chopra, formerly of Cardiff City and Newcastle United.
Together, they have put themselves within touching distance of the ISL final in Mumbai on Saturday. If they were to reach that climax, and somehow win it, McAllister would have an unusual winner’s medal to go alongside those he has for the Scottish Cup (Hearts) and the League Cup (Livingston). “It would be incredible. We would go down in history as the Super League’s first champions. We would be legends I suppose. In India, anyway.” After that, McAllister will have some decisions to make. Sidelined by a calf injury for many of Kerala’s games, he has thrown himself deeper into coaching but, as long as he is able to continue playing, he intends to do so. He would love to be back in the ISL next year. Before then, he might return to England, Scotland or maybe stay in India, where the I League offers another option.
He would even consider moving his Bristol-based family out there. Not only would they benefit from an invaluable life experience, McAllister would have the inside track on what is shaping up to be football’s biggest growth market. India’s dream is for their national side to qualify for the World Cup finals. If they can exploit the country’s enormous potential, football there can be as big as cricket.
“It’s definitely working,” says McAllister. “There’s no doubt that the following is there. In Kerala, football is massive. Speaking to our owners, they have massive ideas about the long-term plan. And they have a big chance because the first year has gone so well. It’s about building it now, and making it stronger. Year on year, it will get bigger and better with more quality players coming through. It’s here to stay.”