The former Kerala Blasters centre-back spoke about the impact of the competition on the country’s football and future.

India’s premier football competition, the Indian Super League (ISL) will turn six years-old in October. Not many people appreciated the franchise-based league when it first kicked off in 2014 – but over the years, its fanbase has increased by leaps and bounds and today, it is also one of the most popular football leagues in Asia.

A lot of factors have so far contributed to the ever-rising popularity of the ISL. During the league’s earliest days, the likes of Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, David Trezeguet, Diego Forlan and numerous other global superstars came to India to play for various ISL teams. Although, most of them were only moderately successful, their sheer presence helped the competition gain attention from all corners of the world. In addition, partnerships between ISL teams and European clubs like ATK and Jamshedpur FC with Atletico Madrid, Mumbai City with the City Football Group and Bengaluru FC with Rangers FC have also helped the league gain a lot of fans from foreign lands.

The ISL has undoubtedly made a huge impact on the growth of football in India. The competition has paved way for the emergence of several domestic players, with some of them even going on to represent the country at the international level, following impressive stints with clubs that feature in the league. Brandon Fernandes, Nishu Kumar, Anirudh Thapa and Udanta Singh are a few players who have become mainstays in the national team, thanks to their remarkable careers in the Indian top flight.

Another name that cannot be missed while mentioning ISL heroes is that of Sandesh Jhingan, who evolved from a young, inexperienced player to an all-time great at Kerala Blasters in just six years. Although, the player and the club mutually parted ways last month, there is no doubt in the fact that the centre-back has a good future ahead.

The 27-year-old who had been sidelined due to injury during the whole of 2019-20 ISL season, recently recovered completely and is now rearing to get back on to the pitch. In a recent interview with IANS, Jhingan spoke about how the ISL had a lasting impact on his career.

“If I speak only for myself, I have grown as a footballer and human being as well. I came around when I was just 20-years-old. What ISL did was it brought so many big players and we could rub shoulders with them. When I was at (United) Sikkim and Mumbai FC before that, there was not so much stress on fitness. How to conduct yourself throughout the day, not only two hours in the gym and two hours on the ground, is what we learnt,” Sandesh Jhingan said.

He further added, “We played against top strikers like (Florent) Malouda, now Coro (Ferran Corominas) and Miku. I am missing out names, but when you play against them you can assess yourself. It gives you confidence too. The national team has improved so much, see the rankings. Also how far we have come. We are now respected as a team wherever we go.”

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“Also, 10 years ago if you went anywhere in India, barring 2-3 big names not many were recognized apart from those who followed football ardently. Now, that has changed. People who are not into football also – you go to Gujarat or Rajasthan – they know Anirudh Thapa,” explained Sandesh Jhingan.

“This exposure was very much needed. No matter how good the product is, if you don’t show it to people, no-one will care. We had good teams previously also, but it was not shown in the right way, so it never got its due. We are lucky that ISL is doing what it is doing.”

The defender is also optimistic about ISL teams making consistent appearances in continental competitions, provided they continue with their steady progress. “In the next five years, during every season you will see an ISL team going to the final or semi finals of the AFC Champions League,” he predicted, after which he went on to explain how he hopes to see India winning a berth in the FIFA World Cup one day.

“We are a decent team in Asia and we need to be regular in the Asian Cup. We need to get to 2023 Asian Cup, qualify from the group and take it from there,” he said when asked about the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers. “Playing for your country is the biggest motivation in itself. Like everyone gets married, everyone has kids. But, not everyone gets to represent their country. As far as fitness is concerned, this batch is extremely fit and has great mental strength.”

“I still haven’t realized my potential. I want to win trophies, I haven’t won many and I need to win at the club level. For the nation, the World Cup is the ultimate dream and I will have a regret if I hang up my boots and not take India to a World Cup,” Sandesh Jhingan concluded.

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