The cash-rich league may have its critics but its driving Indian football in the right direction…

When the Indian Super League (ISL) first began in 2014 it had more than its share of cynics and detractors, justifiably so. As up until then, Indian football had been largely insulated from the culture of corporatization and privately-owned sporting franchises that had infiltrated other sports across the country. Although its cricketing predecessor, the Indian Premier League was seen by some as a blueprint, there was the realisation that the two leagues operated in very different ecosystems.

Just over three years on from its inception, the IMG-R brainchild is vying to become the country’s top flight and whilst its values still face fierce opposition from the traditional bigwigs of the Indian game, it is clear that the cash-rich league has proved the catalyst for the most dynamic phase of rapid transformation in Indian football, heralding changes that are turning heads not only at home but also overseas.

Also Read: Indian players: Do ISL clubs use them just to make up the numbers?

When asked to comment on the impact of the ISL during its third season, legendary Brazilian Zico then manager of FC Goa, had suggested it must be measured by comparing the progress of the national team in the pre and post-ISL eras. To that effect, the Blue Tigers have made remarkable progress in the past few years as is reflected in their swift rise up the FIFA rankings. For instance, when the first season of the completion commenced in October 2014, the national team were ranked 158th in the world. In the updated table released earlier this month, they were 100th and on a streak of eight straight wins in all internationals.

While the national team’s progress may or not be directly linked to the ISL, its presence has been far-reaching. One of the upgrades it has brought about is the quality of overseas players on show on Indian soil. Former European starts like Helder Postiga, Florent Malouda, Nicholas Anelka and Diego Forlan have all dazzled fans with their brilliance. On the touchline too, the likes of Zico, Gianluca Zambrotta, Roberto Carlos and Marco Materazzi have made their presence felt.

Former FIFA WC Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan led the Mumbai City FC to the semi-finals last season, proving his creative and goal-scoring credentials even at 37

The balance between Indians and foreigners in starting line-ups (currently 5-6 in favour of the latter) continues to remain a matter of debate. But as Mumbai City FC star Krisztian Vadocz told Khel Now during the tournament’s third incarnation, their presence here is important in the league’s formative years, not only for brand-building but also to ensure an upgrade in the quality of football. It is also doubtless that Indian players, young and seasoned, continue to benefit from rubbing shoulders with such global stars on and off the pitch. In contrast, cash-strapped I-League clubs have long survived off unknown commodities, mostly from Africa.

Another gift of the ISL has been the increased levels of professionalism it has introduced into the Indian game. This new mantra has transcended spaces from medical care, health and fitness, conditioning to high performance. More corporate investment has also led to greater accountability throughout the clubs and better remuneration for players, only fair given their short shelf life. This is a welcome change from the old bastions of the game, mostly family-owned businesses run by honorary boards that have often functioned as laws unto themselves. The recent entry of Bengaluru FC, one of the country’s best-run clubs and the Tata Group, who have long had a footprint in the game through the renowned Tata Football Academy, is only likely to provide further impetus to this phenomenon.

A key aspect of ISL’s long-term survival are the fans and there is work to be done here. Most of the franchises do not have an indigenous fanbase and are living off fans from I-League regulars.  But, there is already evidence that the heady mix of sport and entertainment sprinkled with just the right amount of stardust and smoothly packed with daily live coverage on primetime television, aided and abetted by a 24 x 7 media circus, is starting to capture the imagination of fans, not only in India but all over the world.

A key success story here is that of Kerala Blasters. The southerners have gathered a burgeoning reputation for possessing arguably ISL’s most passionate fans, not surprising given the team often plays to capacity crowds averaging upwards of 50, 000- a-game. In India, this figure can only be rivalled by the Kolkata Derby and exceeds the holding capacity of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Indeed, this is impressive enthusiasm in a state that spent many years in the football wilderness. To put it simply, in today’s times, it is important not only to have a good product but also to be able to sell it well.

ISL has successfully galvanized football enthusiasts in the Southern state, which rarely has a blank seat during games

On almost all of the above barometers, the nation’s current top flight stands no comparison with the goliath that is ISL. In fact, it would be a travesty to even attempt to compare the two given the vast differences in resources at the disposal of the ISL clubs and their I-League counterparts.

As it forges ahead, the revolutionary competition faces numerous challenges. Indian football has long existed around traditional strongholds or bastions such as Kolkata, the Northeast and Goa. The place of the heavyweights from these regions in any new food chain remains a question mark. But, that they are incorporated in any roadmap for the future is quintessential. For, whatever your thoughts are about them and the work they have or have not done over the years, the fact remains that they host nearly 70% of football fans, in what is still a cricket-loving country. As complicated as the answers to these questions might be, for these fans to be left behind in this phase of fast-paced development is not something Indian football can afford.

This numbers reflect the 2016 season and show a massive outreach of the heavily followed tournament, unlike the I-league

Another challenge is for these franchises to function as institutions that are present and visible throughout the year in the football ecosystem. It is pivotal for them to develop effective grassroots programs and to contribute to the communities in which they exist. This is something that is just starting to happen and will take time and resources to develop.

In light of the above, it is fair to say that the ISL remains a work in progress and that its true impact can only be measured after these processes take hold and begin to deliver tangible results. However, one thing is for certain, as it wades through stormy and unchartered waters, the tournament is pulling Indian football in the right direction.