The structure of the league is supposed to change next season with the talks of an unified league doing the rounds.
A Quick Recap
It started as just another tournament, and in just half-a-decennary, it is set to become the nation’s top-tier league. That’s Indian Super League for you, ladies and gentlemen. In this special piece, we take on a journey that would remind you of everything the league has perceived over the course of its oscillation.
Fikru Teferra is fading memory for most people, and the likes of Stiven Mendoza, Diego Forlan, Marcelinho and Ferran Corominas have eclipsed him already leaps and bounds. This, though, would never come in between the league’s folklore and the Ethiopian’s romance with the first season. His four goals and somersaults added to the season that saw former Liverpool star Luis Garcia take home the most exciting player’s medal, as the duo led Atletico de Kolkata (ATK now) to the first ever ISL trophy over Kerala Blasters with a solitary goal.
The trophy seemed to follow the Ethiopian to Chennaiyin FC. Brazilian legend Zico created a FC Goa side that featured a fresh Andre Santos from Arsenal, but could not get the better of Fikru’s side on the final night, with Stiven Mendoza playing spoilsport. Chennaiyin lifted the trophy in style, coming back from a goal down to win it 3-2 with two late goals.
A scuffle followed. Former Manchester City midfielder from Brazil, Elano Blumer, was arrested for assaulting the owner of FC Goa, and after obtaining bail, the player left for home and never returned. It was a massive loss for the league, as Elano had been one of the standouts in the first two seasons for the Marina Machans. This was the first major controversy the league encounter.
It started again, unfazed by the departure of Elano, as in came the 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan. The Uruguayan joined the Mumbai City FC side, and under Alexandre Guimaraes and with the assistance of Matias Defederico and Sunil Chhetri in attack, Forlan was ready to run riot. The quartet had just one problem – Gianluca Zambrotta at Delhi Dynamos.
Bengaluru FC won the ISL this season
The Italian World Cup winner modelled a side a lot of ISL followers are still proud of. A ball-playing centre-back, attacking full backs, non-porous and metronomic midfield and a highly creative attack – everything that the attacking 4-3-3 formation needs. His commander-in-chief was Marcelinho Leite Pereira, a little-known wizard from Brazil. Led by French World Cup winner and Chelsea fan-favourite Florent Malouda, Delhi marched on to score 27 goals, 11 more than any other side that qualified for the knockout stages.
The two most fancied sides did not have their days parallely in the semi-finals. The season saw a revisit of the first final, and a similar podium finish, with ATK trouncing Kerala Blasters in the penalty shootout.
Problems started hereon, and they have continued. The Asian Football Confederation that had followed the growing impetus of the league, wanted the All India Football Federation to unify the I-league and the ISL into one, or devise a way to a single league format that’s widely accepted across the globe. The national federation has failed to act on it yet, and suggestions and pragmatic revolts have been a regular occurrence.
The organizers may not agree, but the league got a massive boost in stature as Jamshedpur FC (representing the Tata Football Academy) and Bengaluru FC came under its clout for the next season. Bengaluru FC had by then created its reputation as one of the most-professionally run clubs in India, and had won every national trophy they had participated in until then. Their exploits, continentally, is public knowledge.
Jamshedpur, or the TFA, has been India’s premier football academy for over three decades. It was a massive coup for the league, and spoke staunchly of its intent. The stature grew, and so did the football. Bengaluru inclusion saw the centre of Indian football, Sunil Chhetri, shift from the I-league to the ISL, and that was another boost for the FSDL-owned entity.
Despite recognition, AFC had instructed AIFF to merge I-League and ISL into an unified league
The same year, the AFC, on a temporary basis, gave ISL recognition, and its winners a slot at the AFC Cup. I-league held on to its senior tag, with an AFC Champions League playoff spot. A private league receiving recognition is a recherché feat, and the joy knew no bounds.
The new teams, though, failed to lift the trophy, and the cycle continued. ATK, Chennaiyin, ATK, Chennaiyin – the trend had a pattern. When footballing gods come into the fray, there’s not too much to play.
The year, though, saw the introduction of an average-sized Spanish striker, Ferran Corominas who came in with new coach Sergio Lobera to FC Goa. Corominas was on fire from day one, and hasn’t stopped. The 36-year-old has scored 35 times already in 40 appearances, and is the highest scorer in the league.
The fifth and the most recent season saw a radical decline in attendance on most venues. The quality of football didn’t decline, but decision-making came under the screening on several occasions. Bengaluru FC broke their trophy drought, and lifted the silverware, adding the only national medal that had eluded them.
973 goals over the last five years, there have been some positives too, Neil Talnikar suggests.
‘Good things take time to develop and that is exactly the matter with ISL. The diminished hype of signing marquee players helped bring the likes of Ashique Kuruniyan, Sahal Abdul Samad, Michael Soosairaj and many others into the limelight this season. Yet, the emergence of players like Mohammad Yasir, Kamaljit Singh and others has been a success and shows a glimpse of the talent the league possesses. With the I-league in contention to merge with ISL next season, the numbers are likely to improve again.’
Ashique Kuruniyan broke out the day he returned from Villarreal’s Academy, and Soosairaj did enough good to his reputation last season at Chennai City FC. Sahal, Yasir and Kamaljit can be termed breakout stars, having contributed to their sides from unheralded podiums.
You may or may not agree with Neil’s point, but Mrunal Nakashe certainly negates it. Here’s what he points out.
ISL has failed to produce many domestic talents and are heavily dependent on I-League for fresh faces
‘The ISL’s biggest failure has been the inability to expand its domestic talent pool. Also, its clubs are still extensively dependent on their I-League counterparts for fresh faces. For the league’s long term sustainability and vitality, this must change. Investment in a dynamic structure of youth development is vital.’
The grassroots system for most clubs, at least on paper, has started. It still needs time to grow out of the cocoon and leave its embryonic stage. The recent RFYS victory over Arsenal indicates that the direction is right, and a little more impetus would take it to the next level.
Ravish Narvekar, an avid follower of the national football scene, suggests.
‘Many think that ISL has improved football in India but the cash-rich league has just improved fan following in the country. The 5-years old league has not improved football quality in India but has just brought glamour to the league. At present, the league is also under fear of losing its popularity. We have seen this with I-League as well, as when the NFL was rejuvenated in 2007 to the I-League, the Fatorda Stadium (and several others) used to be full for most matches but as it became older, it lost its popularity).’
Narvekar also added a point, that has been self-published a lot, but hasn’t really been harped upon in the network enough.
‘However, the one thing that really improved in the country in the last five years is grassroot development. Reliance is investing lot in improving nation’s future start and we have seen the glance of its success in AFC U16 Championship 2018.’
Sourav Dey Neogi from Kolkata did not express a lot of hope on the financial future. He comments.
‘With recent comments from several officials, ISL’s future looks to be gloomy at best. The league might stay here for a while but risks to see majority of the stakeholders and owners change (Kerala Blasters & Lulu Group, FC Pune City & Wadhawan Group, ATK & RPG). As Parth Jindal recently pointed out, ISL sides have been losing money for quite some time and with the I-League’s shutting down virtually imminent, a possible merger with all existing perks looks unlikely. It could be a financial tussle, one that could be taken to court by the poorer side.’
John Abraham’s incessant attempts to let go off NorthEast United is well documented, and this easily justifies his point. What next? If FSDL removes the league fee that is in the range of 15-18 crore per season and invites I-league teams to join on merit and start promotion-relegation, a commotion, undeniably, would ensure as the current clubs have been dipping a huge amount every season for participation merely.
Rohan Phillip from Chennai joins in. He talks about a merge, or a semi-merge without which, Indian football probably wouldn’t move ahead.
‘As we move forward, the ISL must find a way to incorporate some of the oldest clubs in the country (The Kolkata clubs) as the I-League is on the verge of dissolution.’
Quess East Bengal have time and again proclaimed their love for the ISL and would welcome it with open arms (full of cash), and Mohun Bagan would be forced to follow. The recent questioning of the future roadmap, though, comes as a hindrance to the AIFF, as the clubs need to know the outlined plan to tread the right path. Anything short of that is just not good enough for the ‘legendary’ clubs.
There are problems, more on the organizational front than on the footballing front, that have to be redressed, or at least acknowledged. Right steps would bring right results, but they would take time. Does Indian football has enough of it, moreover after an overwhelming performance at the AFC Asian Cup 2019? Exciting, or boring, new moves are certainly in the posterity and it would be shoved down the throat of someone or the other. Watch out for this space.