NEW DELHI Italy's World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, former Argentina skipper Juan Pablo Sorin and Frenchman Robert Pires are set to feature in an Indian soccer competition that hopes to replicate the success of cricket's Indian Premier League.
Some 30 players and six coaches from abroad will be auctioned off in Kolkata for the Feb 25-April 8 league, one of the organisers told Reuters.
"We have signed seven 'icon' players for the auction and each of the six teams will have one such player with a $600,000 salary cap," Bhaswar Goswami, executive director of Celebrity Management Group, said by telephone.
Other signed-up players - all at the end of their careers - include Portuguese midfielder Maniche, former Nigeria international Jay-Jay Okocha, ex-Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler, former Spain striker Fernando Morientes and Argentine Hernan Crespo.
CMG has signed a 30-year deal with the Indian Football Association for the league and has floated tenders for franchises, Goswami said.
"We have started with six teams this year, all in West Bengal but have already been approached to expand the league to other parts of the country.
"Every team will have $2.5 million to spend in the first year. They will have a maximum of four foreigners and a compulsory six under-21 Indian players in their squad."
Cricket's IPL dazzled fans with its exciting Twenty20 format, player auctions, post-game parties and heavy advertising and now soccer - which has failed to produce top-class Indian players - is poised for a similar makeover.
"The league is modelled on Major League Soccer and of course IPL," Goswami added.
"We saw the hype and buzz around players' auction in IPL and feel it can be an equal success. It's a brilliant concept. We expect owners to make profit much earlier than the IPL franchises.
"We are also in the process of finalising television rights for live broadcast across south-east Asia."
Goswami was bullish about the league's future and said it would change the face of Indian football.
"I think we made the right start by launching it in West Bengal. It's a soccer-crazy state where 100,000 people throng to watch the local derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
"It will be a massive boost for local players to share the dressing room and field with some of the players they grew up idolising."
A cricket-dominated India ranks a dismal 162 in FIFA's soccer rankings despite its huge population but some 60 million Indians tuned in to the English Premier League's 2009/10 season, roughly the same as Britain's entire population.
Nearly 120,000 fans gave a rousing farewell to Oliver Kahn in the German goalkeeper's 2008 Bayern Munich swansong in Kolkata and Argentina great Diego Maradona virtually brought the city to a standstill during his visit the same year.
No wonder World Cup winner Pires is keen to give the new league a shot.
"Since I had nothing in Europe, why not try something completely unknown? I've never been over there," Pires told L'Equipe's website (www.lequipe.fr).
"I am proud to be the first Frenchman to go and play there. And eight weeks is nothing."
Pires said he would at least be paid 395,000 euros for seven weeks.
"If my (club) president likes me, it could be 790,000 euros. It is a lot of money. I'm not going to complain about that am I? But I'm not going there as a tourist. It's a new adventure."
(Additional reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Mark Meadows; To comment on this story: email email@example.com)