The Indian Super League – What the Doctor Ordered for Indian Football?

mikael-silvestreIf you happened to place your money on a certain Mohammed Rafique being the one to score the winning goal of the Indian Super League, chances are that you can buy yourself a franchise for the next season. Rafique, who had played for a mere 5 minutes in the entire League prior to the final, turned the match on its head when he scored from a Jakub Podany cross in what was virtually the last kick during normal time, thereby sinking the Kerala Blasters and handing an unlikely win to Kolkata, who were the less threatening of the two sides by a margin. The final was a fitting culmination of the drama, excitement and surprises which the ISL has put on show in its inaugural edition. These past three months have arguably been the most important ones in the careers of Rafique and his peers. It’s not often you get to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Luis Garcia and Robert Pires, especially if you’re an Indian footballer. Once the dust has settled on the final, there will be a continuation of the discussion which had begun even before the League had kicked off – is the ISL the much needed catalyst for Indian football?

An analysis of such an important question by me, someone with limited knowledge and ever-growing interest may be out of place. However, the prima-facie impact is there for all to see, and it is heartening for the enthusiasts of the beautiful game. One of the most important contributions of the ISL has been the excitement and buzz it has created in the country – something which the I-League and its predecessor, the National Football League failed to generate. As I gazed at the fireworks in the night sky, I couldn’t help but remember the IPL finals and the Kolkata Knight Riders winning this year’s edition. While it would be improper to say that the ISL is on course to match or overtake the IPL’s popularity, the fact that cricket was already the nation’s favourite sport prior to the IPL simply goes to show the wonderful job the ISL has done for football in India.

The Indian Super League has made the average Indian viewer\football enthusiast look beyond the Manchesters and the Madrids. Or made a somewhat valiant attempt to. Tight and entertaining matches ensured that all the franchises quickly garnered a loyal fan base. The facts reveal that the ISL is the fourth most followed league in the world, behind only the EPL, Bundesliga and La Liga.  The Kerala Blasters FC and Atlético de Kolkata recorded the 2nd and 3rd best average attendances for home games in non-European football for the season of 2014-2015.  The critical contribution of this exposure will be to inspire the youth into looking beyond cricket as a sport they would like to pursue. It is common knowledge that every major international football team starts nurturing its players from as young as 5 years old. The Indian football scene is sorely lacking on this front among others. ISL may just be that right mix of talent, excitement and glamour that will capture the imagination of the youth of India.

Even in its infancy, the ISL has managed to give us football of the highest quality, at least most of the time. From Bernard Mendy’s Zlatan-esque bicycle kick to Apoula Edele making saves that match up to Neuer’s, the ISL has had all the tricks in the bag to make you nod in approval. Alessandro Del Piero, Italy and Juventus legend, and also the marquee player for the Delhi Dynamos remained optimistic about the impact of the ISL and the quality of football on offer. David James of the Kerala Blasters also hailed the competitiveness of the league. Clearly, the experience of training with the best and getting coached by all-time greats such as Zico will go a long a way for the young footballers who were part of the League. The I-League has not delivered in terms of quality like the ISL has, and if we take into consideration the fact that Indian footballers hardly ever get a chance to play for an international club, the three months of interaction with World Cup and UEFA Champions League winners is simply invaluable.

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Tie-ups with the big names in football like Atlético de Madrid, starting grassroots programs, selling tickets at affordable prices to encourage the youth to attend are just few of the steps which have contributed to the success of the ISL. The dedication and backing of owners like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Ranbir Kapoor to name a few have also gone a long way in the development of the ISL. The star power of the owners has helped promote football, attracting their fans and followers to their franchises. The impetus provided by IMG and Reliance, the ones who envisaged the ISL cannot be understated. In its gestation period, the ISL had a lot of difficulties with the AIFF regarding the availability of the players and viability of the League, but their untiring efforts have fructified in the form of these unforgettable past three months.

The ISL has given us hope, but it will be premature to think the quality of Indian football, especially that of our national team, will witness a quantum leap. David James pointed out the woeful infrastructure on offer. I-League teams like current champions Bengaluru FC did not release their players for the ISL. The sort of consistent fan participation that the ISL has generated has never been the case with the I-League. On the contrary, the demise of clubs such as JCT, Mahindra and very nearly Mohammedan Sporting is reflective of the floundering state of Indian football. There have been rumours of the I-League merging with the ISL, but that seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. With the AIFF reluctant to grant a longer window, the ISL will be just a three-month long event, casting doubts as to whether the requisite intensity will be maintained for the remainder of the year.

Indeed, the ISL has a long way to go, and has issues it needs to sort out. But for now, sit back and admire the resounding success that has been the Indian Super League.

Aditya Mehra

Editor’s Note – Wow, the editor’s note business sounds cocky. Anyway, I just wanted to add that while the ISL has been able to offer a commendable number of positives, perhaps initial comparisons with the I-League, especially on popularity, are slightly premature. That is like comparing the Ranji trophy with the IPL. The former has no way to compete with the latter given the glitz, glamour of a short tournament with a professional league that is a grind at best. Quality also diminishes with Ranji and the I-League given the large increase in volume of players. However, the I-League has itself made some big strides with the success and the model followed by Bengaluru FC. Home attendances for them and support was fairly fanatical. Improvements will be seen over time in the I-League and that is a great thing for Indian football. Many clubs in Europe are seeing it as a potential market and are investing in training academies and long term tie ups. Indian Football is on the rise. The ISL is not the only route there. It is, however, a wonderful catalyst for generating interest both within and outside India. One can only hope that the powers that be run it better than the way things are usually run in this country. The ultimate sign of success for football (and this is what the aim should be) will be someone from the BJP+ claiming that football was never invented by the British but during the Vedic period, killed by Mughals and subsequently stolen by the East India Company.

  • Aditya Mehra is a student of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences.
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