Our correspondents have their say as they debate which of India’s two premier club competitions is better and why.

Being a Cricket-dominated country over the years, football always taken a backseat in India and when you are talking about Indian Football, the followers have always been a minority group. But these followers are the ones who love their club, love their badge and can go to any extent for the welfare of their beloved clubs. When you talk about Indian football these days, you speak about the different leagues and all the pros and cons associated with them. 

However, the previous year has seen many rising complications, with the Indian Super League (ISL) gaining its own space alongside the I-League. Naturally, with a polarizing issue of this kind, fans on both sides are trying to establish the pre-eminence of one league over the other in terms of quality and betterment of the football future in the country. Here, our correspondents Atrayo Bhattacharya and Aniket Surve debate and champion the cause of their respective favourites.

1. Legacy Clubs are the soul of Indian football

Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have supplied numerous legends to Indian football

The I-league has become an able successor to the National Football League since its inception. Clubs like Dempo, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Churchill Brothers and others have fought against each other to grab the ultimate honour of being the best in the country. These clubs have been here for generations and the people attached to them, especially the supporters, honour and love the badge throughout their lives.

Indian football has made a name in Asia and in the world only because of these Legacy clubs and removing them from India’s top league is something not acceptable. That Kolkata Derby in the semi-final of the Federation Cup in 1997 had an attendance of 131,000 which is the highest in Indian football. So, history and honour go hand-in-hand for these legacy clubs and most football fans in the country can’t imagine a league without clubs like Mohun Bagan, Dempo, East Bengal etc.

2. Better quality of football

If you are a keen observer of the game then by now you might have already noticed that the quality of football is better in the I-league. The football is more free-flowing and direct and some of the games even give us nail-biting encounters and some edge of the seat excitement. From Minerva Punjab’s calculated football to NEROCA’s free-flowing wing play, we have seen it all.

But, to the general audience this fact is still a bit obscured. So, let us lift the curtain and shed light on the topic. The quality of coverage in the Indian Super League is a lot higher compared to that of the I-league and high promotion and branding make the ISL more eye-catching. But, the gameplay is average and even poor at times, to say the least. It is largely compensated with exquisite lighting, fireworks and sophisticated broadcasts.

3. Lower-profile foreigners mean Indians get important roles in the squad

Unlike in the ISL, the I-league clubs go for players who have a comparatively low profile and selection is mainly done on a performance basis and not for past career highlights. So, that means the teams heavily rely on their Indian contingent, which helps develop young players and makes them more mature through proper match experience. In the I-league the Indians work shoulder-to-shoulder with their foreign teammates, whereas in the ISL it is mainly the Indians who are in supporting roles to their foreign counterparts.

The ISL has always believed in bringing in high-profile players, without even caring about their match fitness. Many world-class players who came here have failed to leave an impact just because of their age and lack of fitness. Players are treated more as brands than as players who contribute on the pitch. In the I-league the thing is completely different and Indian players are given key roles which are helping them develop as players and nurture their skills. Players like Michael Soosairaj, Laldanmawia Ralte, Samuel Lalmuanpuia, Singham Subhash Singh, Nikhil Kadam, Sukhdev Singh and many others have become key performers in their respective teams this season. Therefore, offering key roles also makes them believe that they can make key contributions to their team’s results and hence the outcome is positive.

4. More competitive league

Competitiveness in a league adds more tension and anxiety for the fans which at the end of the day is what football all about. The sense of uncertainty is high in the I-league, as teams previous languishing at the bottom of the table are stepping up and proving themselves against the big boys of the league. The difference between the teams is low in comparison to that in the ISL. Teams like NEROCA FC and Minerva Punjab have raised their game and are now fighting for the title this season. Aizawl FC wrote a fairy-tale last season by winning the title and this is becoming a trend every year now. The fans love this drama and unpredictability.

The moments of uncertainty this season, such as when Chennai City FC won against Mohun Bagan away from home when they were down to 10-men or when Aizawl came from behind right in the dying moments to draw 2-2 against East Bengal tell their own story. The I-league has definitely lived up to its expectations this season as a league, but then people who were predicting it to be a two-horse title race with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan only challenging were proved badly wrong.

Whereas, over in the ISL, a club like Northeast United has failed to find its feet after so many seasons. They have struggled throughout and their performances have had a negative impact on fans as their attendance has seen a drastic drop this season.

5. Exposure to Indian coaches

Several Indian coaches have caught the eye this season

India football has seen a lot of legendary coaches in the past and most of them have been locals, who currently have no place in the ISL. The Indian coaches understand the conditions and the stakes and obviously the Indian players better than their more illustrious foreign peers. They have been connected to this setup for a long time and they know exactly how the system should work.

Here, the I-League has again risen to the occasion and maintained the authenticity. Coaches like Gift Raikhan, Khogen Singh, Bino George have utilised this exposure to the fullest as they have great experience of working in this space for years. Khalid Jamil’s I-league winning stint last year is a clear example of what Indian coaches can do if given proper exposure. Elsewhere too, coaches like Thangboi Singto have helped a lot in developing young players at Shillong Lajong. He is currently the assistant manager at Kerala Blasters in the ISL. Raikhan had the exposure and backING of the club and he has transformed NEROCA from newcomers to title contenders. Khogen Singh has utilised his resources to the fullest at Minerva. His calculated approach to almost every game has proven to be successful more often than not as his team stand on the cusp of title glory.

But, in the ISL the picture is completely different and clubs go for high-profile foreign retired players or coaches to marshall their club in the right direction as somehow they feel that the same thing cannot be done by Indian coaches.

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On the other side of the debate, since the introduction of the Indian Super League, the football frenzy in India has reached a level which no one would have ever imagined. Before, football was under the shadow of Cricket, but now it has leapt to such heights that in no time it could reach shoulder-to-shoulder with the prime game of the nation.

Let’s take a look at five reasons which helps ISL to outscore I-League in every aspect.

1. Involvement of corporate sector

The ISL has involved renowned celebrities be it the owners of the teams or other representatives such as brand ambassadors. Names like Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, John Abraham, Abhishek Bachchan are either the co-owners or the face of an ISL side. These celebrities already have established fan-bases which has helped the league grab the attention of a massive number of people, even those who were not football fans. This has helped in the development of football in a major way.

More the involvement of the corporate sector more amount of money gets invested. Money plays an important role in the success of a league, as it helps in all-round development which includes quality of stadia and training facilities.

2. High-profile foreign players help put Indian football on world map

Robbie Keane is arguably the biggest name to join the ISL this season

Four years ago, who would have thought that we would get to see players like Alessandro Del Piero, Nicholas Anelka, Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown playing live across India? This became reality just because of the ISL. Involvement of such high-profile players helps to build the interest of the fans in the leagiue and in Indian football. These players attract people to buy tickets and witness them play live in the stadium. This helps to increase the overall attraction of Indian league football.

The ISL has an average attendance of 20,000+ in each game which is far more compared to the average attendance of an I-League game which is 6000+ even though the latter is considered the premier league of the country.

3. Superior quality of coverage

The coverage of the ISL has always been top notch with each match being telecast in a proper way. Better coverage of the league helps grab the attention of people around the globe. For instance, the 2016 season finale was viewed by a record 41m fans overshadowing the viewership figures of the 2014 FIFA World Cup final.

Quality coverage also ensures that the league is being discussed in every sports discussion thus making football a regular part of sports talk which was absent in India before.

4. Better Facilities

According to many players, the ISL has provided them with better infrastructure to train

The ISL has far better facilities compared to the I-League. Right from the stadiums and training facilities to hotels and travelling, the ISL is one step ahead. The ISL comprises of all internal factors which European leagues have like monitoring players’ diet and providing proper treatment to an injured player which is absent to a certain extent in the I-League. 

Also, the ISL is not fully dependent on the AIFF regarding the money spent on providing the facilities to the players. The private sponsors invest a huge amount of money in facilities which allow players to train in a proper way in the right environment. The grounds used to host ISL games are of top quality. These are the major factors which attract players as well as fans to the coveted league.

5. Better quality of football

The quality of football the ISL produces is much better than the I-League. Involvement of national stars as well as quality international players makes the league more competitive. The competitive nature of the league brings the best out of every player.

Coaches like Teddy Sheringham, Marco Materazzi, Sergio Lobera who have a great experience of either playing in or managing teams in European leagues help the local players to train in a proper way. The techniques or game sense these star coaches bring reflects in the game of each and every player on the field, which improves the quality of football being played.