The recently-departed Carlos Alberto had a great many accomplishments to his name – scoring the famous fourth goal in Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final and captaining, possibly, the greatest incarnations of the Brazil and Santos teams.

After spending 14 years in Brazilian football, Alberto curiously moved to the burgeoning North American Soccer League, where he and compatriot Pele helped the New York Cosmos to consecutive title. Alberto then moved to the California Surf, only to return to the Cosmos after a year.

The NASL ran for 17 years from 1968 to 1985 and was arguably the most famous league outside Europe and South America for the duration of its existence. The league was ahead of its time, recruiting expensive, big-name foreigners – Pele, Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, George Best, Eusebio – past their primes and using these names to secure bumper TV contracts, also managing to attract audiences on account of its star power.

A call for a longer league

Sounds familiar? The teams posted significant losses and the league wrapped up in the summer of 1985, with the franchises unable to recoup huge outlays on marketing and players.

“We spent too much money trying to market teams as if they were instant big league franchises before the attendance and money justified it,” Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern had said.

The NASL revolutionised football, or as the Yanks would like to call it, soccer, in America. It helped popularise the game in the States and bring a World Cup to the USA in 1994 after a failed bid in 1986. But the comparisons with the Indian Super League as a big-money league in an emerging football market are inevitable.

The lessons for the ISL are clear: it must learn to walk before it can run. In other words, the league has to be sustainable. In the last few weeks, footballers, past and present, have called for the ISL to be a longer league – at least six months long.

Rivaldo had stated that the league needed to be six or seven months long for it to be more “professional”. Atletico de Kolkata winger Sameehg Doutie had mentioned that “a longer league will also help in more international players coming to India”, while FC Goa coach Zico, not one to mince his words, simply said that “a longer league will certainly be better.”

Why it makes sense

ISL 2016 consists of 14 group-stage matches for each team, played over a period of 65 days (October 1 – December 4). Every team, thus, plays a game every 4.5 days or less, allowing for a very short recovery period between matches.

Professional footballers, in their primes, would struggle to play at this rate for a period of two months or more. When you take into account that Mohamed Sissoko is ISL’s youngest marquee player ever at 31 and all others this season are above the age of 34, what you get is a gruelling fixture list and an ever-expanding treatment table.

In Europe, the top league, the Spanish La Liga has 20 teams and a calendar where 38 games are played across 277 days (August 19, 2015 to 21 May, 2016 for the 2015-'16 season) at an average of just over seven days per game.

Throw in cup and continental fixtures and an average first-teamer may play between 40-50 games per season, thus allowing for a sufficient rest period between matches. Some of these leagues even have a winter break to recover.

Of the top 10 European leagues (calculated according to UEFA coefficients), Ukraine is the smallest with 12 teams, but it has 32 match days spread across 315 days (July 21, 2016 to May 31, 2017).

Some might say that the comparison is rough on the newly-created ISL, only three years into its existence.

A look at leagues in Asia sees the durations getting shorter, but none as short as the ISL. India is currently ranked 17th in the Asian Football Confederation’s Member Association (MA) ranking, sandwiched between the likes of Vietnam and Malaysia.

*India’s official league used for the rankings is the I-League

Other benefits of a longer league

One sticking point for a longer league is the fact that some of the players have to find alternate employment for the other months of the year. A longer league will mean that the percentage of Indians drafted into the league would go up, considering that compensation of foreigners – in general, a multiple of salaries paid to Indians – would have to be increased accordingly.

That would certainly be in line with most of the Asian leagues, which limit the number of foreigners in the squad to four. The current I-League regulations dictate that teams can employ three foreigners and a fourth who must be from within the AFC.

A lengthier league will lead to lesser fatigue, and it is a no-brainer that a player with more gas in the tank is bound to perform better than a knackered version of the same footballer, and thus could positively impact the quality of play on display.

A better showing from the Indians could also help in building brands around home-grown players similar to what cricketers have become today, pulling in more sponsors and investment along the way.

Viewer fatigue is also bound to kick in, with an ISL game being played almost every day for a period of two-and-a-half months. With a game scheduled every other day at 7 pm, viewer interest may not be as sustained as in the initial seasons of the league.

Weekend scheduling may be the most effective for any nascent footballing league, given that the current crop of in-stadia ISL attendees may not always be able to attend the games on weekdays and the same goes for the telly-watching public or office-goers, who may not strictly be working nine to five.

The developed footballing world has seen families embrace the local match as a weekend getaway, an event meant to entertain while affecting bonds touched by support for local entities or organisations.

For the ISL to mirror or even top the best footballing leagues in the world, it has to subscribe to standard practices being followed. There is no magic path or a shortcut for the league to hit the heights that it aspires to reach, without treading on the well-trodden path followed by many before it.