Analyzing the impact of the international breaks on the ISL
Written by: Kevin Galvin
It's really up to the clubs to decide how they want to use the time, a prolonged winter break isn't unusual in many of Europe's top leagues too.
With the AIFF announcing that India's last preparation friendly before the upcoming AFC Asia Cup will take place on December 27th against Oman, it again throws up the question of international breaks and the Indian Super League.
It's a new phenomenon in this fledgeling competition, but one that at least justifies - given India's progression on the international stage - the ISL's work in improving the national side.
The I-League's contribution to the development of Indian football earned the league a silver in the 'Best Developing Football League of the Year' category by the AFC last week, and with several of the national side's brightest talent having honed their talent in the league, it would be amiss not to acknowledge its place in this country.
However, given that 22 of Stephen Constantine's 23-man squad to face Jordan were from the ISL - East Bengal's Salam Ranjan Singh the only I-League representative - it can't be disputed that the ISL is now the finishing school for players, as shown by both Bengal and city rivals Mohun Bagan's interest in joining the league next season.
Meanwhile, lying in the wings are a number of others - like Michael Soosairaj and Komal Thatal - who themselves have impressed in the ISL - and when India do go the AFC Asia Cup this winter, the vast majority squad will be from the newer ISL.
That presents its own problems, not least in the scheduling of the league, which has struggled to come up with a satisfactory conclusion, coming up against the same obstacle of international breaks that nearly every other recognisable league in the world has to contend with.
It's an inevitability that the league will have to deal with on a more regular basis, with the Blue Tigers steadily climbing the ladder, and hopefully, lessons will be learned as the ISL itself tries to improve its reputation on the international stage.
Apart from those 14 ISL players representing India against Jordan, just Tim Cahill - who signed off on his international career with an eight-minute cameo at the end of the Socceroos' game against Lebanon - was the only other player in the league to get international minutes in the last break. Of those 14, three each came from bottom sides Delhi Dynamos and Chennaiyin FC - showing more a lack of foreign talent in those clubs than any major international hitches; two came from table-topping Bengaluru, while FC Pune City, Kerala Blasters, Jamshedpur and FC Goa all had one representative each.
None, thankfully, came back with any injury concerns following the game in Amman, and while Jamshedpur clearly missed Cahill's presence - still travelling back from Oz as the Men of Still were defeated by FC Pune City - his international retirement means those in Jharkhand can now enjoy the former Premier League player to his fullest.
And speaking of that exciting game, nor has the quality of the football following the international break really dipped. After India's respectable draw against China we saw a seven-goal thriller between Chennaiyin and NorthEast United, while since the latest international break the games have all been of extremely high quality, particularly Bengaluru's victory over FC Goa in the Fatorda Stadium.
And it can only get better, as Indian players continue to be exposed to better footballers, whether it be for their ISL club sides against the likes of Cahill, or for the international side playing teams like Oman, ranked 13 places above the Blue Tigers in the FIFA World Rankings.
Injuries will undoubtedly be a factor come the Asian Cup, and with teams like Delhi depending so much on their home talent, the loss of a Pritam Kotal could pile even more misery on what's already been a difficult season.
That's a worst case scenario however, and as goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu correctly pointed out recently, the month break it affords to the vast majority not travelling to the UAE in December and January a chance to take stock.
"If you look at any other league, during the Christmas time there is a break. It can be an advantage for teams. If there are some things which need to be worked on, like extra tactics, it can be done" said the netminder at the beginning of the year.
He further added, "It is a good opportunity to rest a bit after having almost played half of the league. Injured players have time to recover. If the league keeps getting longer, we can use it to our advantage.”
That's the crux of the matter here. While Indian players are given regular contracts, the almost consultancy-like contracts offered to foreign players allows for flexibility - which ATK have badly needed this season - but puts a time limit on the league's scheduling.
That's when a big international tournament can become a hindrance to teams with this bizarre scheduling, when, as Gurpreet points out, it could be used - like in the German Bundesliga's winter break - a good opportunity for clubs to get together and reboot following a hectic pre-Christmas period.
A longer season would offer far more flexibility in the scheduling, particularly given the insistence - presumably due to Star Sports' major backing - to have only one game per day, ensuring the company can show live football every evening, but giving AIFF fixture secretaries a real headache.
As for the upcoming extended international break? It's really up to the clubs to decide how they want to use the time, a prolonged winter break isn't unusual in many of Europe's top leagues, which provide an excellent blueprint from which to work.
That the national team themselves have created this 'problem' through Asian Cup qualification shows that things are moving in the right direction. With talks of expansion to a 48-team for the next World Cup, the ISL could well be put on hold again in four years time as all eyes focus on the Middle East.
And if that happens, nobody will be complaining.
Kevin Galvin is an Irish freelance football journalist currently travelling in India, and covering the Indian Super League on his blog ISLIndependent.
Published: Mon Dec 03, 2018 05:47 PM IST