ISL: Time we saw some gains for Indian football

Though it has created a considerable amount of excitement, the ISL has done little to yank the country’s football from the vicious grip of mediocrity. But the reduction of the number of foreigners in the squad from 11 to eight, and five in the playing XI should open more doors for Indian players to showcase their talent.

Head Coaches all... JFC’s Steve Coppell, ATK’s Teddy Sheringham, DDFC’s Miguel Portugal and NEUFC’s Joao de Deus with the trophy during the Hero Indian Super League - 4 media day held in Kolkata on November 12.   -  ISL / SPORTZPICS

"Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The edifice of every success story took years of painstaking hard work where each brick was layered one at a time to achieve a meaningful legacy. While the lure of immediacy often leads to shortsighted blunders, the foresight to plan and then execute a winning work habitually eludes human nature. In our haste to quantify and announce our accomplishments to peers even at the onset, we neglect to find ways to sustain the drive of even the noblest of endeavours.

The razzmatazz of novelty and the presence of ageing luminaries lent a glowing halo to the first three seasons of the Indian Super League, the kind of show previously unseen or unheard of in Indian football. The pomp and pageantry, however, have done little to yank the country’s football from the vicious grip of mediocrity. While the stars earned their last pay cheques and the fans lapped up the chance to see an Arsenal or Liverpool legend, the footballers of the country found little game time — in crucial positions — to build their confidence.

The six foreigners, five Indians rule — to begin with — made Indian players a minority in the League, with the locals finding little scope to have an extended role in key areas like central midfield or the striking zone.

READ: Experts on ISL's impact

Only one Indian, Chennaiyin FC’s Jeje Lalpekhlua (4 goals in 13 matches) found a place in the top goal-scorers’ list in the first ISL campaign of 2014.

Jeje often partnered countryman Balwant Singh in the Chennai frontline, but he was also indebted to the defence-splitting passes provided by Elano Blumer and Stiven Mendoza, not to forget the promptings by Bernard Mendy from the deep. His good show was also attributed to the long run granted to him by the Italian manager Marco Materazzi. While the Mizoram lad played 895 minutes of football, the second highest Indian scorer was FC Goa winger Romeo Fernandes (3 goals from 880 minutes), followed by Atletico de Kolkata midfielder Cavin Lobo (2 goals from 293 minutes) and forward Baljit Saini (2 goals from 1282 minutes).

Overall, the tournament, which saw 131 strikes, had only 20 Indians scoring, accounting for 27 goals.

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The introduction of the country’s all-time leading scorer Sunil Chhetri changed the scenario dramatically in the 2015 season, with four Indians finding space in the top-10 scorers’ chart. Chhetri led the line with seven goals from 11 matches or 990 minutes of play (joint-third in the list), followed by Jeje (6 goals from 874 minutes), Izumi Arata (5 from 716) and Mohamed Rafi (4 from 539). The total number of Indian scorers, however, stood at 20, with them accounting for 48 of the 186 goals of the season. Last year, C. K. Vineeth (5 goals from 806 minutes) and Kean Lewis (4 from 1160) were the only two local players in the top-10 chart. The season saw a huge slump with 20 Indians mustering only 33 goals.

John Johnson of Bengaluru FC, Bruno Filipe Tavares Pinheiro (FC Goa), Lucian Goian (Mumbai City FC), Henrique Sereno (Chennaiyin FC), Marcelo Leite Pereira (FC Pune City) and Iain Hume (Kerala Blasters FC) strike a pose during the Indian Super League - 4 media day in Mumbai on November 10.   -  ISL/ SPORTZPICS

 

“It’s all about the combination. It’s not that the Indians cannot score, players like Sunil and Jeje have proved that,” the AIFF technical committee member, Henry Menezes, says. “We have to keep in mind that the ISL is a competitive league and every owner wants to win the trophy. So they pick the strongest players for positions that matter. You have to be cut-throat in a competition setup and it leaves very little room for development.”

The reduction of the number of foreigners in the squad from 11 to eight, and five in the playing XI, will open more doors for Indian players to showcase their talent. “The change in the ratio is a fantastic thing. Otherwise, it was an International Super League. Now with six local boys in the starting XI, we can call it a truly Indian Super League,” Menezes adds.

“There will be 17 Indian footballers in a squad of 25 and it will be a wonderful learning experience for them to spend quality time and learn from professionals from across the globe.”

Englishman Steve Coppell, in his third year in the ISL, says: “Rubbing shoulders with top players has made a huge difference to Indian footballers. You see them play with marquee signings and come up against top class forwards and midfielders and it automatically builds their confidence and the game. You see these foreigners and how they carry themselves and take care of their bodies and the Indian players get inspired by that.”

 

Continuity or the chance for a team to learn together over a period, however, has also been an issue with the ISL, with clubs retaining just 25 players (including the six retained by Bengaluru FC) for the coming season. (The second and third campaigns fared much better with a 50 and 65 retention.)

Eight new managers will also be there in the dugout with freshly inducted BFC and last year’s semi-finalist Mumbai City FC reposing faith in their coaches Albert Roca and Alexandre Guimaraes.

In a short span of three years, the League has seen the appointment of as many as 21 coaches, with Materazzi (Chennaiyin FC) and Zico (FC Goa) enjoying the longest tenure of three years.

Clubs, across the world, have always benefited from stability and a well-planned football philosophy. Sir Alex Ferguson’s long reign in Manchester United is a perfect example. This year’s competition, stretched to five months from the earlier three, will see the introduction of two new clubs in Bengaluru and the Tata Sons backed Jamshedpur FC. With the increased number of matches and games spread generously over weekends, the players are expected to retain more of their freshness, while allowing the managers to work and polish their systems.

A variety of coaches — schooled in different footballing philosophies (3 from England and Spain and one each from Portugal, Holland, Costa Rica and Serbia) — are expected to put forth interesting combinations, moulding Indian players to the more nuanced styles of today’s international game. The usual ISL stardust — a galaxy of internationally recognised names — though is a little less, as the tournament has done away with the mechanism of compulsory marquee signings.

Jeje Lalpekhlua of Chennaiyin FC is the topmost goalscorer from India, with 13, in the ISL.   -  R. RAGU

 

Nevertheless, the presence of Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown and Robbie Keane will do enough to keep the English Premier League faithful in the country happy, thereby ensuring a steady supply of supporters to the stands.

The ultimate vision of the ISL producing a homegrown talent still remains a distant dream. The much-talked about grassroots programme, while expanding the reach, is yet to unearth any exciting prospect. The true work of developing a sustainable football model will largely need to happen away from the League’s arc lights, in every corner of the country with these franchisees and also the state associations taking the onus to identify and nurture young players in their regions.

“ISL popularised football in its first three seasons and now more can be done as the clubs have to follow stringent AFC licensing criteria,” Menezes says. “With a lot of clubs already invested in grassroots development over the last few years, we can hope to see a young player break through a club structure and play in the senior team over the next five years. India has always depended on scouting to unearth talent, but now we have the chance to produce players through structured club programmes, much like other developed footballing nations.”

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