No team so far have successfully defended their crown in the Indian top flight.
The only job that’s tougher than winning a title is defending it. Many great sides around the world, both in club and international football, have failed in that regard in various tournaments. The same is true for the Indian Super League (ISL) too.
In seven seasons so far, there have been four different winners, but none in succession. It begs the question – how have defending champions performed in the ISL before? Let’s have a look:
ATK (2014 winners)
ATK’s triumph in the inaugural edition of the ISL was a surprise. The side had finished third in the league phase, winning only four games from 14, and saw out FC Goa in the semi-finals on penalties, after goalless draws in two legs. Even in the showpiece clash, the West Bengal outfit needed a stoppage-time winner to see off Kerala Blasters and clinch the championship.
However, there was no such luck in 2015. ATK, despite a better performance in the league phase, lost out in the last four to Chennaiyin FC, who beat them 4-2 on aggregate before going on to lift the title.
Chennaiyin FC (2015 winners)
At one point in the 2015 season, Chennaiyin FC were last in the league table and were set to miss out on the knockout stages. But, following a dramatic turn of events, they not only qualified for the semis, but also went all the way, riding on the back of prolific striker Stiven Mendoza to see off defending champions ATK, before pulling off a memorable comeback against Goa in the final.
The Marina Machans had surpassed all expectations and were touted to make another deep run as holders. But, the departure of the Colombian hitman coupled with defensive woes saw them finish second from bottom in 2016 and concede their crown in limp fashion.
ATK (2016 winners)
Chennaiyin may have crashed and burnt, but the 2016 season also saw the resurgence of ATK, who won their second title in three years. In a repeat of the 2014 final, the side beat Kerala Blasters in the deciding clash, triumphing 4-3 on penalties.
But, in the following season, ATK endured the same fate as the Marina Machans a year ago. A disappointing campaign meant they too finished second from bottom in a re-formatted 2017-18 edition.
For the second consecutive year, the defending ISL champions had failed to reach the last four.
Chennaiyin FC (2017-18 winners)
Chennaiyin and ATK continued to trade titles, as each side went in the opposite direction once again in 2017. With the latter reeling from a disappointing campaign, it was the Marina Machans’ time to re-build. And re-build they did, reclaiming ISL glory.
But, for the third consecutive year, the ‘curse of the champions’ struck. John Gregory’s side finished last in the 2018-19 season, winning only twice in 18 league games and scoring the least amount of goals. Chennaiyin produced another forgetful title defence.
Bengaluru FC (2018-19 winners)
More history was written in the 2018-19 season, though and in a good way too. Bengaluru FC became the first side to win the ISL title after finishing atop the league table. Led by the consistent Spanish duo of Dimas Delgado and Xisco Hernandez, the Blues clinched their maiden ISL title.
Unlike the previous champions, they didn’t endure the ignominy of getting driven out in the league phase itself. Infact, Carles Cuadrat’s side marched all the way to the semis in the following year, losing out to eventual champions – guess who?
ATK (2019-20 winners)
No prizes if you got this one correct. ATK upheld their ‘yo-yo team’ tag by mounting another successful assault on the title following a poor finish in the previous year. It was their record-setting third ISL title, moving one past Chennaiyin, whom they beat in the 2019 final.
However, the team did not last long enough to defend their crown. ATK merged with Mohun Bagan to form a new club, ATK Mohun Bagan. The new team came agonizingly close to retaining their crown. Mumbai City, however, snatched it from them at the death, becoming just the fourth side in history to lift the ISL title.
Can the Islanders become the first side to win consecutive Indian Super League titles in the 2021-22 season?