ISL: It’s time to batten down the hatches

The current generation of youngsters has an unbelievable appetite to consume football. And the interest to play the game among those in their early teens has never been this high. In fact, in the AFC Under-16 Championship recently, the Indian team gave a rather good account of itself and showed what even a half-decent structure can help achieve. Flash-in-the-plan glamour does give a head start, but what follows that will shape the future and it’s high time India realises this.

Sachin Tendulkar takes a selfie with the players of Kerala Blasters ahead of the Indian Super League Season 3 in Kochi. At extreme left is Telugu actor Chiranjeevi.   -  H. Vibhu

Chennaiyin FC fans celebrating their team's title triumph in the Indian Super League last season.   -  M. Moorthy

During the inaugural season of the Indian Super League (ISL), Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary cricketer, was interviewed by The Blizzard, the renowned football quarterly, about his interest in football, and why he had invested in the ISL franchise, Kerala Blasters.

“The whole idea is to reach world-class standards, and help Indian football players get that exposure of rubbing shoulders with international stars,” he said. “What I thought cricket did with the IPL was that it allowed players, especially the younger lot, to spend time together with foreign players. You can only learn from such experienced names, and that is what the ISL is doing for Indian football. I think, in time to come, the standard of ISL play will get better. In the process, so will Indian football.”

This by no means is new thinking. Current football superpowers in the Asia-Oceania region had also thought on similar lines when they embarked on their own efforts to put in place systems. In Japan, in the early 1990s, football was still a minor sport compared to baseball or sumo wrestling. The country established the J. League, the first-ever professional football division, in 1993. Ageing stars like the Brazilian legend Zico, the German World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski, Englishman Gary Lineker among others were the biggest draws.

 

It’s a similar story with the Australian A-League too. It was founded in 2004, and its prominent stars at the start were the likes of Dwight Yorke, the former Manchester United striker. Now, China is bidding to shed its unglamorous football past by roping in stars such as Ramires, the Brazilian mid-fielder, who is still 29 and not quite the ageing star one would generally associate with such leagues.

“It’s big money. In fact outrageous money,” says Cameron Watson, Bengaluru FC’s newly signed Australian midfielder who has plied his trade in the A-League and also in countries like Portugal and Holland. “It’s good to bring people to the games and help certain clubs which have the power to buy those players and probably win a title or two.”

Until now, the ISL has managed to do this. Riding on ageing, but clearly over-the-hill stars, it has brought fans to the stadium. But what Watson adds as a caveat is instructive of the future. “In terms of football for the nation, help develop young players, it’s kind of catch-22,” he says. “It’s good for the short term. Long term only time will tell.”

In the present football ecosystem in India, the ISL is battling this perception. It’s seen as nothing more than a spanner in the works. It sits over and above the official league (I-League) and often behaves like just a jamboree. It calls itself the “unrivalled football championship” of India and the mission is to “revolutionise the sport” and “elevate Indian football to international level.”

But its structure is such that for the third year running, India will not play any FIFA-recognised friendly matches for the duration of the League which is essential for its development. Unlike leagues across the world that stretch over six to seven months, ISL is jam-packed and provides next to no time for player recovery. A roadmap comprising a three-tier structure has indeed been suggested starting next year, but by not including a system of relegation and promotion, and thereby providing no incentive for lower-level clubs to compete, it seeks to contradict its own slated mission.

 

As evidence, Watson recalls the A-League’s journey. “It was about having a good foundation and being stable. Because the league before had gotten out of control with certain clubs being able to spend so much money. That’s why we got the salary cap.

“By season seven or eight, the league got to a stage where it could look to get some real quality overseas players not as a novelty but on its strength. (Alessandro) Del Piero came, David Villa came. Even players in the age group of 27-28, who were playing in Europe. For example, Marcelo Carrusca at Adelaide, who played for Galatasaray, played in the Champions League, played against Liverpool but no one knew him. He has since been one of the best players. “Now clubs are recruiting better after good scouting and with due diligence. Players are staying for four and five years not just one or two and Australian football is growing. Not up, up and away but growing.”

Sean Carroll, an English journalist based in Japan, recollects what Japan did to become one of Asia’s most prominent football centres. “Great efforts were made to establish Japanese players as role models,” he says. “This was the key to attracting Japanese fans. Without domestic stars it may have been hard to maintain interest. Youngsters could long to be and see that it was possible to become one of those guys out under the floodlights.

“Also teams had to select hometowns and fulfil certain criteria with regard to contributing to those areas. They had to represent the towns/cities in which they had emerged from, with the aim of becoming a source of pride for the supporters from those areas.”

There have been dips in Japanese football too but the foundations, Carroll says, were laid correctly. So much so that barely five years since the J. League’s inception, Japan had qualified for its first-ever World Cup in 1998.

“Having players develop at local clubs and then move to the Bundesliga, Serie A, the Premier League etc. is a huge source of pride and motivation to local fans/young players, which encourages the cycle to continue,” feels Carroll. “That has in turn obviously benefited the national team, which feeds back into football’s popularity even more.”

For India, the time to do this seems ripe. The current generation of youngsters has an unbelievable appetite to consume football. And the interest to play the game among those in their early teens has never been this high. In fact, in the AFC Under-16 Championship in Goa recently, the Indian team gave a rather good account of itself and showed what even a half-decent structure can help achieve.

Flash-in-the-plan glamour does give a head start, but what follows that will shape the future and it’s high time India realises this.