The league is gradually gaining popularity in the country with a sense of development of the game in place.

In a recent interaction, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das was lavish in his praise for Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) – operators of the Indian Super League (ISL). He said, “Honestly speaking, had FSDL not come in I don’t know what would have happened to Indian football. There were no takers left after Zee (Sports). AIFF may have had no option but to curtail activities drastically. It’s a boon for Indian football that FSDL came in at the right time.”

“The way they have actually helped in restructuring many of our own events — it has been a very big value-addition. The launch of the Indian Super League which has changed the landscape of Indian football has been a great achievement,” he explained.

The Indian Super League has come a long way since being launched in October 2014. In just six years of its existence, the ISL has become India’s premier league, with two continental spots anointed to it. The league-stage winners get the AFC Champions League spot and the winner of the playoffs (the final) will become a part of the AFC Cup playoffs.

For a closed tournament to receive such treatment may sound baffling to many, but such has been ISL’s contribution to the sport in the country, that nearly all of India’s national team contingent over the last three years have been playing in the ISL. The I-League, for all its quality and youth development, falls far behind on this metric.

While on one side, the ISL brought top professionals like Diego Forlan and Robert Pires to India helping youngsters steal out of their books, it also added several aspects of professionalism to the game. Gradually, the league has started developing youngsters as well, building a line of talent ready for the national team to use when the need arises. One of them is Lallianzuala Chhangte, who’s currently a regular in the national team after biding his time.

Chhangte had experienced a stint with I-League side DSK Shivajians before making a move to the ISL in 2016. 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.”

While providing India’s best a better stage to perform, the ISL has also given the next generation a dais to showcase their talent. The reserve sides of eight ISL teams participate in the I-League Second Division, helping the younger players get a good number of games under their belt before they make their debut at the highest level.

The PL-ISL Next Gen Mumbai Cup gave U-14 and U-15 players from India a chance to prove their mettle against teams like Chelsea, Manchester United and Southampton. FC Goa, Bengaluru FC and Reliance Foundation Young Champs locked horns with the U-14 teams from the Premier League clubs, providing them an instantaneous lift in terms of motivation and quality of opposition.

ISL: Reliance Foundation Young Champs edged Manchester United in the next Gen Mumbai Cup in 2020

While the world already knows about the number of things the ISL has done, we take a look at the goals the league should set for itself in the next five years.

Adding more teams to the roster

Every voice in Indian football calls for a single league with 18-20 teams and with the ISL established as the top tier, the responsibility lies on the organizers to ensure the widening of its scale in terms of the number of teams. Promotion/relegation will only intensify the quality of the league.

Fighting for survival to stay in the top tier will change the dynamics in terms of management. It will be associated with marketing and sponsorship deals, prizes no club desires to giveaway.

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Development of home-grown players

While this is not a deal-breaker, it could do a world of good to Indian football. A minimum criterion of home-grown talent in the top tier would see Indian players playing regularly in key spots. The decision to have a fix domestic roster must be rescinded, as soon as possible, as it restricts growth and development of younger players.

The decision to implement the 3+1 (foreign + Asian) rule from the 2021-22 season is a step in the right direction. It must be extended for the foreseeable future to allow more Indian players in the starting lineups. Clubs like Goa and Bengaluru play a key role in development of domestic players and the net must be widened. The inclusion of at least one state-grown player could also be added as a rule, if not in the starting XI, at least in the matchday squads.

ALSO READ: Sandesh Jhingan: We are lucky that ISL is doing what it is doing

Involvement of fans

Most clubs have a fanbase that cheers for them from the stands and ISL clubs are no different. However, several fans in the last few years have complained that they were not allowed to bring large banners to the stadiums or arrange events such as pyro shows. The club managements should get in sync with fan groups and allow things such as these, taking a leaf out of Bengaluru FC’s book.

Fir Instance, Indonesian football sees fans bring drums and play them with passion for the entire 90, while in Turkey, the rivalries go beyond the stadiums. With a little more leniency, clubs would incorporate more fans that form the base of growth and income in the long run. Also, it builds a better relationship with the local community that allows players to live in happier environments.

There’s so much that can be done, but the organizers and the Indian football fraternity needs to understand that setting realistic, achievable goals is key to slowly, but certainly, taking the game ahead in a country that eats, breathes and sleeps cricket. FIFA and global stars call India ‘a sleeping giant’ in the beautiful game and it is time we start waking up gradually with the right mindset and steps.

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