Atlético de Kolkata of the Indian Super League just signed the newest ISL player that soccer fans have actually heard of—Robbie Keane, the 37-year-old Irish striker most famous for his long-term stints at Tottenham Hotspur and the LA Galaxy, as well as his decade as captain of the Republic of Ireland national team.
This transfer does not, by any means, shift the balance of power in world soccer, but it does remind fans of the potential that India has to become a relevant soccer country.
Keane joins several other foreign stars who have wound down their careers in the Indian Super League. Since 2014, when the league became active, it’s seen appearances from Joan Capdevilla, David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Roberto Carlos, Robert Pirès, Mohamed Sissoko, Lúcio, and Florent Malouda, among others. If this sounds like a rehash of MLS’s similar strategy, but with even older players, that’s right. But in a country where soccer isn’t ingrained in the culture from a young age, the arrival of old stars can be useful in helping the game catch on.
Unlike China, the country nearest India in population, the ISL is encouraging investment in players from abroad. The Chinese Super League saw some absolutely eye-popping mega-transfers for good players in their primes for a few recent years, but new taxes imposed on these moves have now mostly closed the league off to prominent talents from outside China.
The ISL, by contrast, initially drew attention from fans in its country by mandating the signing of “marquee players,” which included most of the known names previously mentioned. For the upcoming season, these players—who almost never made a tangible impact on the pitch—are no longer required, but there’s still a quota of foreign players for each club, which helps the league’s quality while the sport is still introduced to the larger Indian population.