Almost a year ago, a whole host of marquee football players landed on Indian shores as the Indian Super League made an explosive start. Italy’s World Cup-winning legend Alessandro Del Piero, the league’s biggest draw, led a revolution that also included Arsenal greats Robert Pires and Fredrik Ljungberg, Italian greats Alessandro Nesta and Marco Materazzi, and Brazilian legend Zico to name a few.

The implicit promise was of a league that would gradually grow bigger, better and bolder with every season. This meant the continued arrival of not only superstar players, but a gradual shift towards more current stars.

However, with only a few days to go for the July 31 deadline before which the clubs must declare their marquee players, the follow-up to a red-hot first season has been unexpectedly lukewarm ahead of the second.

Of the eight designated marquee players from the first season, only Elano (Chennaiyin FC) will return for the 2015 edition. Nicolas Anelka, Materazzi and Zico are the other big names whom the league has retained from the inaugural season.

Three clubs – champions Atletico de Kolkata, FC Pune City and Kerala Blasters FC – are yet to announce their respective marquee players. Rumours suggesting the arrival of Didier Drogba in Kolkata appear to be far-fetched, while Kerala have only been linked to former Liverpool defender John Arne Riise.

The other five clubs haven’t set the world alight either, with Portuguese winger Simao Sabrosa (NorthEast United FC) and Brazilian defenders Lucio (FC Goa) and Robert Carlos (Delhi Dynamos FC) the only new faces to arrive.

There is a three-fold reason behind why recruitment units at ISL clubs aren’t producing fireworks to follow in the footsteps of last season.

Limits on spending

In March this year, the ISL’s governing body, the Football Sports Development Ltd, had introduced a new player salary cap of Rs 20 Crore starting from season two. It was an understandable move, which forces ISL clubs to spend within their means.

When decades-old football clubs across the world have been led down a path of bankruptcy by careless owners, what chance do new clubs steered by inexperienced owners really have of surviving without such a directive? A spending cap safeguards the long-term future of the league. It also leads to more balanced competition (UEFA’s controversial Financial Fair Play – FFP – seeks to achieve the same thing in Europe).

The downside of such a step is the restriction it puts on club owners who can no longer spend freely to seduce world football’s biggest names – an aspect of the ISL that was critical to its growth last season. Delhi Dynamos cannot afford to spend Rs 10 crore on one player, like they did on Del Piero last season. Nor can Mumbai City afford to splash the cash on three marquee names in one season, as they did on Ljungberg, Anelka and manager Peter Reid.

Expensive managers

The governing body also “strongly recommends” that clubs appoint football persons of some repute as managers. Since all marquee player and managerial signings are completed only after the approval of the FSDL, this recommendation virtually acts as a mandate. This process has been in place since the start of ISL and aims at promoting the league through the involvement of well-renowned football personalities.

ISL clubs are, therefore, obliged to spend heavily on both a marquee player and a marquee manager. However, a manager (a football person of some repute) doesn’t need to have a coaching pedigree or a coaching licence – a loophole that allows clubs to appoint a single individual as a marquee player-manager and save overall costs.

Carlos was first introduced as the manager of Delhi Dynamos and a few days later announced as the marquee player as well. Similar was the case involving Anelka, who was retained as a marquee player and nearly a month later also appointed Mumbai City’s manager. The lag in both announcements suggests the only motive here is to save money. At 42, Carlos will not be of much value to Delhi as a player (he last played in 2012) whereas Anelka’s quiet demeanour and general indifference on and off the field hardly makes him leadership material.

Better off without marquee players?

Adopting them as player-managers lessens a club’s burden of signing a marquee name. Such a strategy, though well within the rules, is rather detrimental to the health of the league. If every club follows the same, the league will only have eight marquee names instead of 16. Further, the absence of traditional managers discourages the growth of football philosophies within the club. At least Zico – who is the league’s biggest coup till date – has returned to continue the work he started with FC Goa last season.

Owing to demands placed on the modern manager and the modern player, player-managers have become a rare breed in football. This approach was first practiced in the ISL by the Kerala Blasters with David James, though an able deputy in assistant coach Trevor Morgan went a long way in helping the club’s cause.

Materazzi was the other player-manager in the first season, but he wasn’t Chennaiyin FC’s marquee player. The Italian made only six appearances (half of James’s 12 for Kerala) and served in a role closer to that of a traditional manager. Both clubs, it must be noted, reached the last four and perhaps set a precedent for clubs like Delhi and Mumbai to follow.

Finally, clubs may also have learnt that marquee players (especially those who are coming out of retirement) have a risk attached to them and may not necessarily benefit the team.

Delhi, for instance, were faster and more lethal without the slow-moving Del Piero. So were FC Pune City in the absence of the rusty David Trezeguet. Ljungberg made only four appearances for Mumbai before pre-ISL injuries took their toll, while Pires too struggled to make an impact with FC Goa.

Would the quality of football be sharper in the absence of such players? Probably. Would a greater emphasis then be placed on Indian players? Probably. But popular names generated an almighty buzz both locally and globally last season. It’s a feeling that is missing ahead of the upcoming one.