ISL: Old rivalry resumes in revamped league

The enhanced fourth edition of the league is set to begin with ATK and Kerala Blasters locking horns at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium on Friday.

The Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium is all decked up for the first match of the latest edition of Indian Super League.   -  H. Vibhu

The Indian Super League (ISL) was conceived four years ago to to wake India from its slumber, with regards to its football potential. Sharing concepts of the franchise-based Indian Premier League (IPL) and Major League Baseball of the U.S., the ISL, through the three editions, has gone on to become the most important football league in the country from the point of view of attendance and television ratings.

The fourth edition of the ISL will be a longer tournament with enhanced teams and a change in the number of foreign players on field. The players draft and salary cap has also put all the competing teams on the level-playing field.

One criticism of the ISL is that it is a dump yard for over-the-hill foreign players who could afford to take a risk of participation, given the short period of the tourney - two and half months. To an extent, the criticism was justified as some high-profile signings failed to live up to their hype in the previous years.

Read - Sunil Chhetri column: Geared up for the new season

The addition of two more franchises – Bengaluru and Jamshedpur FC – for the fourth season stretched the duration of the league to five months and the number of teams from eight to 10. The longer league also convinced Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to recognise the league and grant the qualification spot of AFC Cup to the winner of the ISL.

READ: Kerala Blasters season preview

The expanded and longer league meant foreign players had to think of having long-term contract with their respective clubs and had to be at their prime fitness to last the rigours of the league. The reduced numbers of foreign players on the field from six to five in the fourth edition also meant more opportunities and responsibility for the Indian players to grow and improve.

The players draft was held in July where 134 players were available for 10 franchises to pick in 15 rounds. The new franchise, Jamshedpur, was given the privilege to pick players in the first two rounds. The teams thought smart and did their homework well to pick the combination of Indian and foreign players.

History favours ATK

The league has survived a brief uncertainty over its future, when stake holders of I-League clubs revolted and wanted a unified league, as the fourth edition of ISL officially kicks off on Friday. Traditional rivals ATK and Kerala Blasters meet at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

READ: ATK season preview

Nothing can be more exciting than a repeat clash of last year’s finalists in the league’s opener. History favours the Kolkata side, which has remained unbeaten in all its clashes, including two finals, with Kerala Blasters since the loss in Kochi during the inaugural edition. But as Blasters’ coach Rene Meulensteen said, there has to be a beginning for everything and Friday could well be the day for the men in yellow to rewrite history against the Kolkatan side.

The Blasters coach was keeping the cards close to his chest. One of the advantages he has over ATK is that he has a fit side where all players are available for selection. Meunlensteen was wary of ATK side which he said was a good side despite the absence of its key player Robbie Keane. Conceding that his side was still to reach peak fitness, Meulensteen said his team will be looking for a win against ATK.

Rene’s counterpart Teddy Sheringham chose to downplay the absence of Keane, who will take a couple of weeks to recover from his injury, and said his side had enough bench strength to make up for the absence of Robbie and other injured players. Teddy said he was aware of what damage Dimitar Berbatov could do to his team and wished the player will not reproduce the kind of form he displayed during his Manchester United days against ATK on Friday.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will be the chief guest at the opening ceremony.