The Indian Super League began with a bang in 2014. Back then it had the star power of numerous big names in world football, a fresh format and a marketing initiative hitherto unseen in Indian football.
However, with each passing year, the sheen of its star footballers proved to be both unviable and ineffective. The ISL resorted to a more organically-built model but it came at the cost of the buzz it managed to create in its initial years.
In the last few years, the ISL has almost quietly trodden back to the start line and run the race without much fanfare. A long way away from its glitzy start, the league now a lot closer to what an Indian football competition has always looked like. In the longer run, this is what the ISL needs to be.
On the cusp of its seventh edition, the ISL has expanded to eleven teams, has allotted a foreigner slot in its teams for players from AFC-affiliated nations as per the guidelines of the continental body, and is another step closer to resembling a top-tier league competition.
Certain developments in the build-up to the season have reinvigorated the interest among fans. Even though the gloss of the competition has been lost a bit as it will be played behind closed doors at neutral venues, there are plenty of things to look forward to about the new season that will be held inside a bio-bubble in Goa.
Enter Mohun Bagan and East Bengal
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are India’s biggest football clubs. Without these two on board, the ISL was India’s top-tier league lacking the most important credentials. The two Kolkata giants too needed a lift into the more professional setup that the ISL has been since the inception. So when these two clubs finally joined the ISL, through distinctly different routes, Mohun Bagan merged with ATK and East Bengal entered the fray with the help of a new investor, it was pretty much a perfect marriage.
Even though there will be no fans in the stadium this season, the addition of the fanbases of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the mix would add much-needed colour to the ISL.
The Kolkata derby, quite easily the biggest game in Indian football will now be played on the ISL stage for the first time with the two clubs set to clash on November 27 in what would be East Bengal’s first game in the competition.
“Mohun Bagan and East Bengal coming in is a huge thing. The clubs are monumental in stature. It is a huge thing for them to play in the ISL. It will be very competitive with the addition of those two teams,” said Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri.
East Bengal will be managed by Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler who is by far the biggest name associated with the competition. His presence is certain to draw more eyeballs towards the ISL.
Mohun Bagan’s entry will also revive their rivalry with Bengaluru FC. The two clubs were involved in some intense title battles in the I-League.
Matches behind closed doors and the bio-bubble
The biggest talking point in the build-up to the ISL this season has been the short pre-season and the long duration of the bio-bubble and the impact it could have on the players.
Most players are coming into the new season on the back of long breaks due to the coronavirus pandemic and it will be interesting to see how it affects the performance levels of the players.
“This season all teams will struggle. We haven’t played and trained for a long time, so we don’t know what to expect. I think it will be difficult for all players of all teams to get going,” FC Goa midfielder Lenny Rodrigues had told reporters during a recent online session.
Chhetri seemed to second Rodrigues and felt it would be key for players to avoid injuries.
“There are quite a few challenges in this season. The focus is now to get fitter and be ready. We will not be able to play at the Kanteerava. That is a huge disappointment. Our fans travel wherever we play. Not having them will be a big miss. Moreover, staying in a bubble is not easy but it is needed,” said the 36-year-old.
City Football Group check in at Mumbai
It was a big summer for Mumbai City FC. It was always going to be after City Football Group, the entity that owns Manchester City bought majority stakes in the club last year.
And CFG have stamped their class on the club straightaway. Sergio Lobera who guided FC Goa to three successive semi-final appearances was appointed as the club’s new manager.
Big signings, four of them from FC Goa followed. Bartholomew Ogbeche, one of ISL’s best strikers in the last two seasons was signed. The franchise spent over Rs 2 crores in just transfer fees in the recently concluded transfer window and now boast one of the strongest squads in the ISL.
Coach Lobera revealed how working in a project led by CFG has been one of the finest experiences of his career.
“I have worked at some great clubs including Barcelona, but I can tell you that I have never worked before in this way and it is amazing to be working with Mumbai City and CFG,” Lobera said.
The Spaniard will have a big task on his hand to develop an understanding among his new players and get them playing in his style. But with four of his former players that pretty much formed the spine of his FC Goa side once again by his side, his task will be made easier.
Will AFC players make an impact?
All ISL teams had to sign at least one player from AFC-affiliated nations as per the new guidelines of the competition. Most clubs identified Australia as the destination to sign players from with nine out of the eleven AFC players coming from the A-League.
The likes of David Wiliams and Erik Paartalu will provide a blueprint for success to fellow Australians about succeeding in the ISL after their stints here.
But with the AFC players taking up one of the foreign players’ spots, there will be pressure on them to deliver the goods and not let the standards fall from. Before this year, ISL teams barely looked at AFC nations for foreign players with the league never having more than three AFC players featuring in it.
The 2020-’21 campaign will tell if the ISL clubs have got it right targetting the A-League for finding their AFC players.
Will an Indian striker please stand up?
The growth of Indian players is always an important aspect of ISL and the complaints that emerged on this front last season was the lack of Indian strikers on the field.
The concerns were led by none other than Indian national team coach Igor Stimac who felt it would be impossible for India to find a replacement for Chhetri unless its strikers start getting more time on the pitch. Last season, Indian strikers averaged just 418 minutes of game-time all season while an Indian full-back spent 913 minutes on an average on the pitch.
This season the prospects of Indian strikers aren’t bright with the proportion of foreign strikers in the league going up by 3%.
However, the return of a fully fit Jeje Lalpekhlua does offer Stimac some hope of having a striker other than Chhetri who is among the goals.
Apart from Jeje, there will be plenty of eyes on young FC Goa striker Ishan Pandita, who spent the last few years in Spain. The young prodigy is tipped by many to be a national team player in the future and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his debut campaign.
Hyderabad’s Liston Colaco who ended last season with a bang is also another prospect to keep an eye on. ATK Mohun Bagan’s Manvir Singh who is highly rated by Chhetri will be looking to thrive in new surroundings but will have his work cut out to get ahead of Williams and Roy Krishna.
The ISL will be the first major sporting competition to be played in India since the Covid-19 pandemic and it promises to be an intriguing affair. In Indian football, the start of a new campaign of its top-tier league hasn’t been so highly anticipated for a long, long time.