ISL 2019-20: Five editions down, new tricks needed for a new season?

The ISL has given Indian football technically gifted players, but the tournament needs to produce more to have a long-lasting impact on Indian football.

Bengaluru FC, after years in the I-League, was inducted into the ISL in 2017 and has quickly established itself as the tournament’s most consistent unit.   -  K.Murali Kumar

The introduction of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014 was meant to pull Indian football out of its long-lasting slumber and fast-track the game’s development in the country. With smart packaging and the promise of a largely untapped market, big-spending corporate houses were finally cajoled to put their money on football, with the franchisees locked in a power battle to attract the bigwigs of the global game to offer a sprinkle of stardust to the tournament.

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Household names from the English Premier League and other top European Leagues — Alessandro del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Diego Forlan, Roberto Carlos, Zico, Marco Materazzi — were now plying their trade for three months a year in the hastily refurbished stadiums of Goa, Chennai, Kochi and elsewhere, and the fans lost little time to throng the grounds to finally see their heroes — though a little past their prime – in flesh and blood. The old masters, still showing guile and gumption, were quick to build on the fandom, and the tournament found enough support from the local fan clubs of Premier League giants. The Arsenal fans of Chennai almost outnumbered the fans of Chennaiyin FC as FC Goa — with Gunners legend Robert Pires — came calling in the first season.

With stands brimming and television ratings soaring, these were trivial details to mull over and the ISL was soon competing with the best in the business, boasting higher average attendance than the Serie A — the battleground of Juventus and the two iconic Milan rivals.

Indian players, too, were exposed to the newer training methods of renowned foreign coaches and world-class facilities. The emergence of technically sound players like Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Ashique Kuruniyan can be attributed to the ISL. The spectator-friendly 8 pm kickoffs and the presence of stars from cricket and movies formed an intoxicating mix, and the I-League, the top-tier league in the country then, was soon struggling to match the steps of its new rival.


The emergence of technically sound players like Anirudh Thapa (in blue) can be attributed to the ISL.   -  ISL/Sportzpics


But this honeymoon period was soon to be over as the ISL struggled to retain the services of the big-ticket names. An expanded season proved to be a hindrance as the stars showed reluctance to sign on for a longer stay in the country. Along with this, the in-stadia attendance also dwindled and the tournament endured a constant struggle to maintain fan engagement.

The ISL also failed to regularly produce or unearth quality local Indian players. The eight teams had no proper academy in place to act as a feeder system. So, the ISL relied on imports. Stiven Mendoza was a phenom in Chennaiyin FC’s roster, while Mumbai City’s Forlan dazzled the crowd with his wily play, but the fans failed to find a local star to look up to. The I-League, robbed off all the sheen, came up with one fairytale after another. Aizawl FC made history by becoming the first club from India’s north-east to lift the title, and Minerva Punjab, with a budget one-fiftieth of an ISL club, pocketed the crown the following year. It continued to unearth talents from across the country, almost acting as a feeder systen for the economically powerful ISL. These Indian players — the lucky few — were now rubbing shoulders with some of the best in the business, with youngsters sharing dressing rooms with boyhood heroes who they had followed on television. Thapa, just 18 when he joined Chennaiyin FC after a three-month training stint at French club FC Metz, was coached by Italian World Cup winner Materazzi and immensely benefited from the association.

The impact of the foreign presence helped inculcate a sense of fearlessness among these emerging stars such as Thapa and Kuruniyan. In the years that have followed, the Indians have become braver and aren’t afraid to chase down the ball. They’re not afraid of a fight or the physical side of the game and are not overawed when facing superior opponents.

This was on full display at the AFC Asian Cup this year and the recent World Cup qualifiers when Kuruniyan proved himself as one of the brightest wingers for the country, while Thapa staked his claim as a midfield mainstay. And the Intercontinental Cup in July saw the blossoming of another exciting young talent in Sahal Abdul Samad, who impressed with his snazzy footwork and wily passing.

“In my opinion, the ISL has made the players more confident. I think competing with good players has definitely given them confidence and you can see that in the way they played the last two World Cup qualifiers against Oman and Qatar,” former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia had told news agency IANS. “Psychologically, the players are now looking more confident. Due to the ISL, the boys are now playing and training with quality players. So that definitely helps you learn a lot more and gain in experience.”

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However, the 95-game, six-month-long tournament has failed to offer enough game time to the players, thus impeding the development of the national side. “You cannot dream of becoming a strong force if are playing 20 games a year. The number should a minimum of 50 for a player to realise his optimum,” Indian coach Igor Stimac had said in July. “We need more strikers playing in the ISL or I-League. I cannot create a centre-forward from a full-back in the national team. They need to play more in the country’s leagues to make a strong national side.”

Monetarily, the ISL has offered security to aspiring footballers, who can look at the sport as a serious career option. To quote the Reliance Foundation’s founding chairperson, Nita Ambani: “When (Sandesh) Jhingan started out in the ISL, he was bought for just $3,000. Today, he draws a salary of a $180,000 — 60 times over his starting salary.”

In five years, the ISL has emerged as the third most-watched tournament in India and the digital viewership last season was more than 12 million. However, the in-stadia attendance continued to plummet. Mumbai City FC averaged around 4,000 fans per game, 50 percent of its total capacity, while Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune City also found it a daunting task to bring fans to the stadium. And that led to the last two clubs making drastic changes.

The Dynamos shifted base to Bhubaneswar and rechristened itself as Odisha FC in search of greener pastures, while Pune City disbanded and was bought over as Hyderabad FC. Two clubs in two hotbeds for sports means the sixth season will have a renewed interest and these two clubs, in particular, will expect more fan engagement.

Teams in the ISL, unlike those plying their trade in matured football leagues in England and the rest of Europe, have failed to offer consistency through every season. Chennaiyin, after winning the title in 2018, finished at rock bottom of the table last season with a measly nine points from 18 games, the lowest in the tournament’s history. ATK, too, in the season following its titles, has struggled to remain relevant. The side won the title in 2014 and 2016, but in three other seasons it has managed only one playoff berth.

The tournament’s most prolific scorer, FC Goa’s Ferran Corominas, will be leading its charge and is ever willing to trade his Golden Boots — he has two of them! — for the ISL trophy.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

This oscillation in fortunes can perhaps be attributed to the closed nature of the tournament. Much like Major League Soccer in the USA, the ISL doesn’t allow the promotion or relegation of clubs, and that offers clubs a sense of protection and they have virtually nothing to lose. According to the recent roadmap presented by the All India Football Federation at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, the ISL will remain a closed affair till 2023-24 and promotion-relegation will be introduced from the 2024-25 season.

Forlan, too, opined that promotion-relegation was the need of the hour in Indian football. “ISL and MLS don’t have relegation. But the fact is the owners put in so much money. If your team is relegated, then owners feel that they are putting money but there is no return. So, that’s one way. But in the future, they should do it,” Forlan said. “It’s good to win. Of course, if you play for relegation, it’s challenging. It’s different when you play to win the sport and when you are going down, going for second division. It can be tough for the team and the fans. But it should be good, that’s how it happens all around the world.”

Bengaluru FC, after years in the I-League, was inducted into the ISL in 2017 and has quickly established itself as the tournament’s most consistent unit. The side topped the table and finished runner-up in its debut season in 2017 and followed it up by topping the table and taking home the title the following year. With a wealth of experience from the I-League, one of the best youth academy setups in the country and perhaps the best fan base, too, Bengaluru perhaps offers the best model for the other clubs to succeed.

The team has further bolstered its roster. Carles Cuadrat’s side has roped in Brazilian Raphael Augusto from Chennaiyin and Kuruniyan from Pune City FC, possibly assembling the best midfield in the tournament. With an equally firm defence, Bengaluru will be out to make it seven titles in as many years.

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Cuadrat, however, will face stiff competition from his old friend Sergio Lobera, who will oversee FC Goa’s title charge. After playing a near-flawless season, Goa was undone by Bengaluru in the final last season and will look to salvage pride. But the side will come into the season on the high of having won the Super Cup – its first title since its inception. The tournament’s most prolific scorer, Ferran Corominas, will be leading its charge and is ever willing to trade his Golden Boots — he has two of them! — for the ISL trophy. Former champions Chennaiyin FC and ATK, who share four titles among them, have opted for a complete overhaul and will look to revive their fortunes as the season kicks off.

The tournament took a bold step in the second week of October by announcing Martin Bain as the chief executive officer of Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL), the body that runs the ISL. The Scotsman comes in with the rich experience of having been at the helm of his boyhood club Rangers FC and also holding the position as the director of the Scottish Premier League. More recently, Bain was CEO of English club Sunderland AFC.

Given how passionate the Scots are about their football, and the Sunderland fans too for that matter, as seen in the Netflix series Sunderland ’Til I Die, Bain will look to take the tournament to the fans and wins their hearts once more.

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