The competition has managed to generate a great interest for the sport among the youth in the country.

  • Helped develop a professional setup both on and off the pitch
  • Recruitment of foreign stars played a pivotal role in growth of Indian youngsters
  • Attracted strategic partnerships from renowned conglomerates including Atletico Madrid, CFG etc.

Any sport has to be provided with a professional setup and a formidable system for it to blossom in the future. Emotions and raw sentiments need to be uplifted through thorough expertise and that were introduced in the country’s football by the Indian Super League (ISL). Established in 2014, the league attracted immense media attention and lured in international stars and coaches to revolutionise the sport’s landscape in the country.

The initial phase of the league saw the likes of Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, David Trezeguet, Diego Forlan and numerous other superstars ply their trade in India. This kind of an assembly of marquee players was unheard of in Indian football at the time. Though most of the players had relatively brief spells, their sheer presence set the base for the league, from which it has grown exponentially.

The ISL has now completed six seasons with increasing degrees of success. Hence, it seems to be an appropriate time to ponder upon the impact that it has had on the lives and careers of present-day Indian players, who have first-hand availed the benefits of the pioneering competition. 

“I would say the ISL has given me a huge platform and opportunity to become the player that I am today. The league and my teams – Delhi Dynamos and now Chennaiyin FC have been integral in my growth as a player and a person,” said Lallianzuala Chhangte. The 23-year-old is among the best young talents in the country and has also scaled greater heights in national team colours. His impressive outings for Chennaiyin were widely noticed and he previously also attended a trial with Norwegian club Viking FK in February, 2019.

The forward continued, “The competitive nature of the league and the support for young Indian players is one of the reasons that players like me are coming up the ranks. Not just that, it is a huge motivation for up and coming talents, as they aspire to play in the ISL.”

Previously, Chhangte had experienced a stint with I-League side DSK Shivajians before making a move to the ISL. Reflecting on the nature and professionalism of the league in which he currently plays, he mentioned, “Everything from the way we approach the game and prepare for it is different. The ISL has definitely made Indian football more professional and enterprising, both on and off the pitch. The quality of football has received a huge boost.”

There has been a focus on creating a supply chain of young, upcoming starlets who could eventually manage to succeed internationally for India. Several current first-team players such as Brandon Fernandes, Nishu Kumar, Anirudh Thapa and Udanta Singh have played extensively in the ISL and hence are in a formidable position to comment on the same.

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Infact, Nishu Kumar made his debut for the senior national team last year. He did it on the back of becoming a mainstay for Bengaluru FC and representing them regularly in both domestic tournaments and in AFC Cup matches since 2017-18. The full-back explained, “I think the ISL has given rise to several young players. There is a clear difference that could be seen between the influx of upcoming footballers into the national scene before and after the ISL.”

“Every club has 4-5 such players and most of them manage to get regular playing time too. It was very important for me personally because playing in the ISL helped me get recognized in Indian football very quickly. ”The 22-year-old has won the title with Bengaluru in 2018-19 and shared the dressing room with some very notable overseas players such as Erik Paartalu, Miku, Xisco Hernandez and others.

Naturally, they are bound to have played a pivotal role in his growth as a professional player. The former AIFF Elite Academy starlet agreed and stated, “The foreign players have expanded our vision and helped us evolve into better footballers. They are ever so keen to share their knowledge and rubbing shoulders with them has assisted in improving our tactical acumen too. We tend to learn and better ourselves due to them every day.”

The distinct attention given to youth teams is prevalent in the solid structures that clubs like Bengaluru FC, ATK, and FC Goa have developed. In the PL-ISL Next Gen Mumbai Cup that was held in Ghansoli in February 2020, FC Goa’s U-15 team defeated the U-14 side of Southampton. Bengaluru FC’s boys had played out a gripping 1-1 draw against the Saints.

FC Goa defeated Southampton FC in the Next Gen Mumbai Cup 2020

Moreover, barring NorthEast United FC and Odisha FC, all the other ISL clubs put forth their reserve sides and youth teams to compete in the second division of the I-League in 2019-20. Most of those teams delivered encouraging performances with the likes of ATK and Jamshedpur’s setups occupying two of the top three spots in their group. This sort of efficiency to ensure that the ISL clubs put out their developmental teams in the mix with other professional clubs and thereby test their mettle is byproduct of the vision of the ISL.

Further, veteran Indian goalkeeper Subrata Paul concurred with the transfer of knowledge from European players to their Indian counterparts too. He put forth his own example and elaborated, “You get to learn while practicing, playing and interacting at length with the foreign recruits and even while traveling with them.”

Paul described, “From my side, it was in 2011 when I got to play against Tim Cahill in the 2011 Asian Cup and he was such a big star then. Some eight years later, we were sharing the dressing room together, traveling together, playing together. So, if I can’t grasp as much as much as I can from him, it’s my loss. Getting to see them has motivated me to play further.”

The 33-year-old heaped praise on the broader factors that make the ISL the league that it is. He affirmed, “The grounds are superb and we have all matches being played under the lights. It helps players to put in better performances.  The players are loving the timely payments. So far, my experience has been that my payments have been on time. No complaints. We are professional players and if that’s taken care of, there’s nothing much to worry.”

Moreover, the ISL has done widespread marketing to create tremendous awareness about the clubs. One can just look at the case of Jamshedpur FC for the same. For a city that had a dwindling significance in Indian football initially, they recorded the second-highest average crowd turnout last season. This is despite the fact that the team had a rather mediocre season.

Furthermore, football in the country required a stimulus of the European knowhow to make considerable progress going forward. In the first season itself, Spanish giants Atletico Madrid became the co-owners of ATK and continued their partnership with the Kolkata-based club for the first three campaigns. Thereafter, Los Rajiblancos extended their support to Jamshedpur FC from November 2018. This collaboration looks to provide technical support and partnership in academy and club operations to the Tata Group-owned club.

Then in September 2019, Bengaluru FC announced a two-year collaboration with Scottish powerhouse Rangers FC. It aimed at presenting a number of football and commercial opportunities to both the clubs. The results of the same could be seen immediately, as they played an instrumental role in Indian women’s team icon Bala Devi’s transfer to Rangers Women’s FC in January 2020. The Blues arranged a trial for her with the Gers in November 2020 and propelled Bala Devi to become the first female footballer from the country to play professionally in Europe.

More remarkably though, the City Football Group acquired a controlling stake in Mumbai City FC in November 2019 and brought the Islanders into their fold, which comprises of illustrious clubs including Manchester City. It is necessary to note that the metropolis was earlier home to I-League club Mumbai FC, who were relegated in the 2016-17 season. On the other hand, CFG promises to massively boost the fortunes of the sport in the commercial capital of the country, which would arguably have been a distant dream if not for the Indian Super League.

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It is rather convenient to spill dirt or pass off rampant judgement on the eminence of the ISL. However, some patience and a sensible assessment on the impact of the league, along with an appreciation of the potential it carries, paints a more optimistic picture.

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