The fourth edition of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) was extended to four months (November 17, 2017 till March 17, 2018) rather than the previous 10 weeks. Matches were spaced out. Forty-seven of the 90 ISL matches were played on weekends, so fatigue and incessant travel was not an excuse for either coaches or players. It expanded from eight to 10 teams (Bengaluru FC, twice I-League champion and newcomer Jamshedpur FC, sponsored by Tatas, were the new teams).
At the ISL player draft, held in July 2017, the 10 franchise clubs spent Rs. 37.33 crore on 134 players. Including the money spent on retained players, the total expenditure was Rs. 48.85 crore. All the established Indian players joined the ISL franchises. In 2017-18, the ISL was no more a showpiece event but earned recognition from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The ISL champion will feature in the 2019 AFC Cup qualifying play-off.
These are all positives of the ISL, which is now a serious competition, evident by the sacking of coaches by three franchises in January 2018. But in four seasons how much has it benefited Indian football in developing talent, profit and a new fan base?
Through slick marketing and use of social media, the ISL franchises have presented a positive image of Indian football. The players are looked after well, stay in comfort; the teams have pre-season training abroad and foreign coaches conduct training sessions.
Creditably seven of the ISL franchises have formed B teams (except ATK, NorthEast United FC, Mumbai City FC) consisting entirely of Indian players, which are taking part in the I-League 2nd division.
The home ground stadia of the ISL franchises have also improved. Getting former World Cup stars to play and using film stars and cricketers as guests has brought in a younger generation of spectators to the stadium and created a buzz.
But, ultimately, is the large expenditure sustainable? All the franchises are making losses. Unlike the IPL franchises, the ISL teams have only limited brand value and are not profitable.
The expensive seven
Players have been paid well and in time. For the first time seven Indian players were paid over Rs. 1 crore. They are Sunil Chhetri – Rs. 1.5 crore (Bengaluru FC), Jeje Lalpekhlua – Rs. 1.4 crore (Chennayin FC), Sandesh Jhingan – Rs. 1.2 crore (Kerala Blasters), Amrinder Singh – Rs. 1.2 crore (Mumbai City FC), C. K. Vineeth – Rs. 1 crore (Kerala Blasters). The two players in the draft with a base price over Rs. 1 crore were Eugeneson Lyngdoh – Rs. 1.1 crore (ATK) and Anas Edathodika – Rs. 1.1 crore (Jamshedpur FC). Even the U-21 players in each franchise were paid generously.
It was however noticed in the 4th ISL, that with most teams not opting for marquee players, the average attendance has plummeted. So the claims of a committed fan base are quite hollow.
The highest attendance in the 4th ISL has been 37,986 in the South Indian derby in which Kerala Blasters lost 1-3 to Bengaluru on December 31, 2017.
In contrast, the Kolkata derby at the all-seater Salt Lake stadium (hence capacity reduced) was attended by 64,360 spectators on December 2, 2017 and the return match on January 21, 2018 by 52,591 people.
Crowds of over 80,000 could have been expected in the Kolkata derby if the stadium’s capacity had not been reduced. So it still remains the most popular match in Indian football, despite both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan having very weak squads this season. A committed fan base supports their team in adverse times also.
A drastic dip
The signs are ominous as attendance figures for NEUFC’s home matches have dipped drastically. Just 1,121 people attended NorthEast United’s 0–1 loss to Kerala Blasters on February 17, 2018. So owner John Abraham’s boast that NEUFC represents the aspirations of a region is mere hyperbole.
NEROCA FC, a newcomer in the I-League, had an average crowd of 24,494 for all its nine home matches in Imphal while 35,285 was its record attendance in a single match. The three North-East based clubs in the I-League, NEROCA FC, Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC, all have a more committed fan base than NEUFC.
With a longer season, increased costs and change in recruitment rules (only eight foreigners could be recruited and five could play) eight ISL teams opted not to sign a marquee player. Consequently attendance figures declined in the 4th ISL. In three previous editions Kerala Blasters had the highest home matches’ attendance of over 50,000. This year it dipped to 31,763. The average attendance in Mumbai City FC and Delhi Dynamos’ home matches was 6,449 and 6,886 respectively. These figures are also inflated as passes are distributed generously to schoolboys and local clubs. Four of the 10 ISL teams (the other two being NorthEast United FC and Pune City FC) had an average attendance way below 10,000.
The captivated audiences came in the first three seasons due to the glamour of big names. Season One saw the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Luís Garcia, Joan Capdevilla, David Trezeguet, Elano Blumer and David James feature, Season Two had Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda, Adrian Mutu, Roberto Carlos and Simão, and the third edition witnessed renowned players such as Florent Malouda, Diego Forlán, Lúcio, Hélder Postiga and Northern Ireland veteran Aaron Hughes.
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In the 4th ISL, the only renowned internationals were the Bulgarian international and former Manchester United striker, Dimitar Berbatov, who along with team-mate Wes Brown played for Kerala Blasters. They made little impact as Kerala Blasters did not qualify for the knockout semifinals. Similarly ATK had bagged the high profile Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane, but he missed some matches due to injuries and ATK did not progress from the league stage.
The four seasons have also seen legends such as Zico (FC Goa), Marco Materazzi (Chennaiyan FC), Gianluca Zambrotta (Delhi Dynamos), Steve Coppell (Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur FC) and David Platt (FC Pune City) become coaches of the various franchise teams which helped raise the profile of Indian football.
Some Indian players claim that these high profile coaches have helped in their overall development. Prolific striker C. K. Vineeth of Kerala Blasters has acknowledged Coppell’s role in making him a more patient and positive striker. Similarly Zambrotta, a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, improved the rugged central defender Anas Edathodika and brought finesse to his game.
Zico, developed the all-round skills of wingers Romeo Fernandez and Mandar Rao Desai. He has made them fine utility players, with greater awareness of positional responsibility. Former Chennaiyan FC coach Marco Matterazi improved Jeje Lalpekhlua’s mobility as he opted for a 4-4-2 system with a midfield diamond. In the recent 4th ISL, Jeje was used as a single striker in Chennaiyan FC’s new coach John Gregory’s 4-2-3-1 formation which has improved his shielding and ability to find space. However, from 2014 till 2017, Jeje also played for Mohun Bagan in the I-League and was coached by Sanjoy Sen. So credit for Jeje’s visible improvement should also be given to Sanjoy Sen.
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Some junior players have benefited. Miguel Angel Portugal, the Spanish coach of Delhi Dynamos (2017-18) who specialises in developing young players, has certainly helped winger Lallianzulla Chhangte, Nandhakumar and midfielder Vinit Rai become more composed on the ball. Jerry Lalrinzuala was the ISL Emerging Player of 2016. He excelled for his franchise Chennaiyin FC as a promising left back. The experience of playing with quality professionals such as Bernard Mendy (France) and Hans Mulder (Netherlands) and coach Materazzi’s inputs helped Jerry develop into a fine prospect. But the entire credit for spotting his potential and developing him as a player cannot go to Chennaiyan FC alone. In the 2017 10th Hero I-League he played with distinction for DSK Shivajians. So who should get credit for developing Jerry as a player? As a precocious 15-year-old he played for his local club Chanmari in the Mizoram league. Later he joined the DSK Shivajians Academy under Dave Rogers and played with distinction for the first team in the 2017 I-League. So Dave Rogers should also be complimented for nurturing and developing Jerry’s career.
Cases of burnout
Some Indian players have improved but there were also cases of decline in form and burnout due to excessive football. In the inaugural ISL, international right back Denzil Franco, excelled for ATK. But injuries have blighted his career and he is now looking at business opportunities in his home state of Goa.
Creditably some of the ISL franchises have realised the futility of hiring big names as coaches, especially those with little experience of Indian conditions. ATK (Kolkata) blundered by hiring Teddy Sheringham, a UEFA Champions League winner with Manchester United in 1999 but with little coaching experience. The team struggled and by mid-January 2018 Sheringham was asked to leave and Ashley Westwood, who had won the I-League twice with Bengaluru FC, stepped in. Westwood tried to revive Bengaluru’s fortunes but injuries and defensive frailties hampered the team.
Twice champion ATK also paid the price for hubris in severing connections with Atletico Madrid after a fruitful three-year partnership. The Spanish club found the coaches and foreign contingent for ATK, which made it a cohesive and match- winning team. Without professional help from Spain, ATK finished a disastrous ninth with just four wins and 16 points from 18 matches. It conceded 30 goals, which confirmed Westwood’s fears that ATK had recruited inadequate or inexperienced defenders. In frustration Westwood resigned by the end of February and Robbie Keane became player-manager.
Ignorant of Indian conditions
Similarly another well-supported team Kerala Blasters opted for former Manchester United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen who had little knowledge of Indian conditions. Besides Brown and Berbatov and the popular Iain Hume they had established internationals like Sandesh Jhingan, Jackichand Singh and C. K. Vineeth. Yet Kerala Blasters had just one win in seven games. The loss to Bengaluru FC on New Year’s Eve was the final straw. The angry fans, also incensed that local hero C. K. Vineeth was not fielded, hurled plastic bottles onto the ground. Meulensteen’s defensive tactics (goalless draws in his opening two matches and seven points from seven matches) were also not liked. The local media reported of dissension within the squad and quarrels on the training ground. The Dutch coach also accused Jhingan of being inconsistent and having attitude problems.
Meulensteen was replaced by David James who played for this franchise in the first ISL season. With his better man-management skills, James restored harmony in the Kerala Blasters’ squad. Consequently performance improved but it finished sixth with 25 points from 18 matches.
At the start of the New Year, struggling NorthEast United FC sacked its Portuguese coach Joao de Deus Pires and his assistant coach Joao Pinho as the team was languishing in ninth place with just one win in seven games.
Former Chelsea coach Avram Grant took over with Vladica Grujic as his assistant. But still the team finished 10th and last with just 11 points from 18 games and for the fourth successive year missed the cut for the last four stage. NEUFC scored just 12 goals in 18 matches. Four players including the league’s top foreign goalscorer, the Spaniard Ferran Corominas (18 goals) and the top Indian scorer Sunil Chettri with 14 goals scored more goals than NEUFC got in the entire campaign.
National coach Stephen Constantine has chosen more or less a fixed national squad since 2016; so many talented Indian players have not emerged from the ISL. Overall it is a mixed report card for the four seasons of the ISL.
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