Will the ISL be the game changer?

The Indian Super League is in its second season. In the eyes of the players, the gains have been many. The crowds this season have been as good as the last, proving that the inaugural season was not an aberration by any stretch. But ultimately, the one that will hold the edifice together will be grassroots-level development.

Gouramangi Singh of FC Pune City tries to tackle Robin Singh of Delhi Dynamos in an ISL match at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex Stadium, Pune. According to Gouramangi, the ISL is a good opportunity for Indian footballers and the younger generation should take it seriously.   -  ISL/ SPORTZPICS

Fans celebrate during match an ISL match between NorthEast United FC and Chennaiyin FC in Guwahati. The crowds have created a positive buzz about ISL.   -  ISL/ SPORTZPICS

In May 2013, The Japan Times, Japan’s largest circulated English daily, wrote on the 20th anniversary of the J. League: “As a spectacle, it was more like a rock concert than a soccer match. Lasers strafed the crowd of 59,626 at Tokyo’s National Stadium, a bandana-wearing guitarist strutted across the pitch, flags cascaded down through the stands and an airship flew overhead, beaming pictures to homes across Japan and around the world.

“When the smoke had cleared and the music had died down, however, a game was about to take place that would change the face of Japanese soccer forever. On May 15, 1993, Japan’s first-ever professional soccer league began with Yokohama Marinos beating Verdy Kawasaki 2-1 in the opening match.”

The J. League had arrived.”

For anyone who witnessed the Opening Ceremony of the Indian Super League (ISL) on October 14, 2014, and saw Atletico de Kolkata beat Mumbai City FC 3-0, the first part will ring true.

“The atmosphere was completely different to anything we had experienced,” former Marinos defender Masami Ihara had told The Japan Times. “It was a bit of a shock, but it made me so happy. It made me glad that I was a football player. When I went out onto the pitch, it was with the happiest feeling in the world.”

Indian fans hope for a change

Now, the earnest hope in the Indian fan as well as the critic is for the second — “change the face of the soccer forever” — to come true too. How and when is the moot point.

The ISL is in its second season. In the eyes of the players, the gains have been many. Gouramangi Singh, a veteran Indian international, says it is technically getting better. “Most of the foreign recruits have played at the highest level and their match-awareness is more. So is the tempo of the game.”

He goes on, “I have been to countries like Australia, Denmark and Ukraine. There, I had to train like a foreigner. I mean, I had to adapt to their culture. Now, everything is coming to our country. Our players need not feel lonely here. It’s a good opportunity and the younger generation should take it seriously.”

So has the crowd been. Like the 60,000 who assembled in Tokyo 20 years ago, ISL stadiums have been nearly full, almost always. Attendances this season have been as good as the last, proving that the inaugural season was not an aberration by any stretch.

This kind of top-down approach is what most sports trying to grow in unchartered markets choose. Why, even cricket, to popularise itself, took a bunch of over-the-hill players to the United States recently. It does ignite the engine if Japan is any evidence. Buying foreigners like Dunga and Gary Linekar did offer improvement.

Grassroots-level development essential

But ultimately, the one that will hold the edifice together will be grassroots-level development. Underneath the glitz and glamour, a silent revolution had started in Japan. Like India, they too had not yet qualified for the World Cup when the J. League started. But they did, barely five years later.

The Brazilian legend and FC Goa manager, Zico, who literally saw Japanese football rise in front of his eyes, though feels that it is tough to compare the J. League with the ISL. “When it started, Japan had no professional football. But in India it has existed for years,” he said, indicating that India has a head start.

To build on this, what India needs is something similar to what Japan did since the inception of the J. League and something China is trying to emulate now. In March this year, The Guardian reported, “The ministry of education has introduced a compulsory programme that will be in 20,000 schools by 2017. It all means that, soon, approximately eight million kids will be playing regular football and that’s just the start. Chengdu announced it will build 300 football pitches.”

A lot of things in sport are down to perception. Just like how the crowds and the atmosphere have indeed created a positive buzz in India, the national team sinking into the abyss of world rankings during the ISL has done the exact opposite. The crowds might not directly impact the quality of play and the Indian team might have slipped even in the ISL’s absence. But when seen together these are the ones that influence people’s thinking.

The Indian fan, during the best of times, is said to be impatient and during the worst of times, a cynic. If this attitude, fuelled by years of incompetence, has to change, it needs concrete and co-ordinated moves and not the ones like allowing the ISL to go on when the national team is playing its World Cup qualifying matches.

Every good project needs a follow-up for success

Like the Brazilian defender, Lucio, said recently, “Every good project is successful only when there is a follow-up.”

“Slow and steady is always sensible — particularly when there is another sport which is more popular than football already around (for cricket in India, read baseball in Japan),” says Sean Caroll, an English football journalist based in Japan.

“Lay the foundations properly, focus on long term stability rather than flash-in-the-pan glamour, and it is far easier to create a dedicated following who are invested in the league. That then helps it to grow and the cycle continues.”

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