Long serpentine queues outside ticket counters and curious questions from the have-nots about the possibility of acquiring a ‘pass’ to the opening ceremony builds up the crescendo to the start of the third season of Indian Super League. As football gets ready to embrace fun, entertainment and glamour, the start of the 79-day carnival in the economic capital of North-East is already a sold-out affair. A constellation of Bollywood stars will perform to give a colourful start to the third edition on Saturday.
This is the place where football transcends all considerations and people respond in rapturous unison to any development relating to ‘the beautiful game’. The failures in the past seasons notwithstanding the ‘Highlanders’, as the resident franchise fancies to call itself, are back in the imagination of its passionate fans with a new coach, Nello Vingada of Portugal, and a revamped roster. The hopefuls are clinging to one interesting fact that the winners of the last two editions – Atletico de Kolkata and Chennaiyin FC – had both hosted the opening ceremony in the years they triumphed.
Inspired by this presentiment the host – NEUFC – is preparing to face the team finishing with the wooden spoon last year, Kerala Blasters, in the lung opener of the tournament. The Kerala side also sports a new look under its veteran English coach Steve Coppell, who bears the exceptions of another football crazy region.
Both sides have opted for form over fame when looking to draft in the marquees. NorthEast United got in Ivory Coast World Cupper and midfielder Didier Zokora looking at his ISL experience while the Blasters got home the Northern Ireland star Aaron Huges. The host got rid of almost the whole of the international cast save the Argentine striker Nicolas Velez hoping to give ‘Professor’ Vingada the options to draft a good plan. Looking reunited under Coppell, Blasters retained a few of the fan favourites but has also modified the greater part of the squad to bring balance in both attack and defence.
A champion generally looks at preserving the winning combination but the holder Chennaiyin FC is left forlorn without being able to retain the most potent attacking combination – Colombian Stiven Mendoza and Brazilian Elano Blumer - that secured it the crown. Marco Materazzi, the famed Italian World Cupper who is retained as the manager, will have to rethink the attacking options in the absence of the two who have both sought employment elsewhere. Norwegian defender John Arne Riise becomes the new marquee player around whom Materazzi is spinning hopes to defend the title.
The arrival of Diego Forlan, the Uruguayan striker who became the star of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in Mumbai City FC will shift the focus to the region that has not been able to express its proficiency in the past two seasons of the tournament. Mumbai and Pune, the two Western cousins have missed the grade being two of the three sides – other one being NEUFC – that failed to make the semifinals so far. As the marquee player Forlan will be at the epicentre of Mumbai’s aspirations. He will also be drawing much of the interest in the new season having been one of the most prolific strikers in the world.
Antonio Habas, the Spaniard who made Atletico de Kolkata the champion in the inaugural season, now has the job of helping FC Pune City make it past the league stage. This intensifies the coaching rivalries this year. Among the characters likely to make duel of the gaffers interesting are the legendary Brazilian Zico, who is into the third season with FC Goa. With the former Italian defender Gianluca Zambrotta joining Delhi Dynamos, Materazzi will have his former teammate in the opposition dugout raising the intensity of the contest. Mumbai FC has Costa Rican national team coach Alexandre Guimaraes while Spaniard and former World Cupper Jose Molina, who is entrusted to train former champion Atletico Kolkata, are making the cast of coaches even more interesting.
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