Points to ponder

Atletico de Kolkata team with the ISL Trophy.-PTI

While “Let’s Football” was being sung with passion and fervour, there was a need to sit back and take stock of the Indian football ecosystem. Now that the tournament is over, the AIFF will do well to finally assess the way forward. By Priyansh.

It was, as some argued, too good to be true. An Indian player, and not to forget someone who belonged to the city Atletico de Kolkata represented, came on as a substitute and scored the winning goal in injury time. It’s the sort of script uninspiring plot writers often look towards for their inspiration.

But it happened. And there’s no suggestion that it was untoward. Whether Kolkata will be remembered as a glorious champion will remain under debate. Those who followed the inaugural Indian Super League will not easily forget that Kolkata won only one of its last eight matches in the competition — the final.

This, in no way, discredits Antonio Lopez Habas’ side. Kolkata gladdened quite a few hearts through its grit and resilience. It also provided an exciting denouement to a tournament that captured the imagination of urban India. The sheer numbers in which the people flocked to stadiums was astounding.

Before the ISL began, there were reasons to believe that the tournament will not be as popular as it turned out to be. Even the organisers admitted that they have been left surprised by the positive response seen over the nine weeks or so that the ISL was held.

Crowd numbers in cities where football has traditional roots were astonishingly high. In Kochi and Kolkata, the sides that made the first ISL final, the figure of 60,000 was breached. Although other cities failed to match those numbers, even they witnessed stadium attendances that had been unheard of in Indian football.

Mohammad Rafique (left) of Atletico de Kolkata celebrates after scoring the winner in the ISL final against Kerala Blaster FC in Navi Mumbai.-PTI

All of this would lead you to believe that the sport in this country has finally found a path that could lead to more significant achievements. However, it’s tough to claim with conviction that such is the case.

Sure, Indian players improved a lot during the ISL. The likes of Francis Fernandes, Mandar Rao Dessai, Sandesh Jhingan, among a few others, have surprised many with the strength of their performances. But there’s a worry that quite a few of the Indian players will relapse into their bad habits.

A competition that lasts only a couple of months can only help so much. The scheduling didn’t help either. Playing a game every third or fourth day placed undue demands on the body and many struggled to come to terms with it. Consequently, managers were unable to field their best eleven in each match.

Nevertheless, the Indian players got fitter as the competition progressed. However, one can’t help but ponder the merits of a longer ISL. In fact, a competition that lasts six to seven months has been mooted by a few franchise owners already. Quite obviously, it would mean that the I-League’s future will be put in doubt. But more on that, later.

A longer competition is expected to bring greater benefits to Indian footballers. The more time they spend with experienced foreign coaches and players, it’s obvious that their improvement will be greater in physical and technical terms.

Kerala Blasters FC co-owner Sachin Tendulkar during the Indian Super League match between his team and NorthEast United FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi. In terms of crowd numbers, the ISL matches in Kerala were a big hit.-H. VIBHU

Moreover, a six-seven month tournament is likely to produce better quality football. With more recovery and preparation time, the players will be able to deliver a greater quality of performance.

After the success of the ISL, the general sentiment seems to be that it won’t be long before the tournament is spread out on the calendar. However, this could only be possible if the I-League merges with its more illustrious sibling or ceases to exist.

The latter prospect will obviously bring a wave of unease. The traditional clubs, despite their declining popularity, have an emotional connect with their supporter base. When — and it may no longer be an ‘if’ — the I-League clubs are forced to accept their fate, it will be a difficult compromise.

The metamorphosis of the ISL from a tournament to a league is still a couple of years or more away, though.

While the competition is likely to develop into a bigger brand, whether the benefits will trickle to the national team is a vexed question. During the glitz and noise of the ISL, one piece of news failed to gain the prominence it should have. India slipped to 171 in the FIFA rankings. The descent of the national team has been nothing less than stunning.

So while “Let’s Football” was being sung with passion and fervour, there was a need to sit back and take stock of the Indian football ecosystem. Now that the tournament is over, the AIFF will do well to finally assess the way forward.