Beyond Chhetri and Bhaichung: The ISL is finally creating new Indian stars
The past generation has seen the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, Gouramangi Singh and Renedy Singh struggle to overcome the hurdles faced by Indian football in their time.
A month since its commencement, the Indian Super League is inching towards a successful inaugural season. Seen as a long awaited ‘football revolution’ that changes the way India perceives the beautiful game, the ISL aims at future development of Indian football with FIFA World Cup qualification in 2026 being the summit.
Bearing in mind that the venture aims at long term progress in the field of football, the development of young Indian footballers is of utmost importance. The past generation has seen the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, Gouramangi Singh and Renedy Singh struggle to overcome the hurdles faced by Indian football in their time.
Hopefully, those struggles, mostly organizational and infrastructural, are bygones. The Indian Super League is a new chapter in Indian football, one which promises to be a smoother ride for the present generation of footballers. Every aspect of the Indian Super League – bet professionalism, superior infrastructure and quality of competition – is both individually and collectively, a first in the history of Indian football.
Given these fundamental upgrades, it is fair to say that current crop of youngsters is fortunate to be a part of a relatively obstacle-free environment that should facilitate their development with minimal hindrance.
There was a general worry that the ISL would primarily revolve around the foreign imports in its first edition. The inhibition among fans was understandable. It was assumed that the stalwarts of Indian football wouldn’t cope with the quality of the foreigners due to their advancing years. On the other hand, the youngsters “were vastly inexperienced” and the leap from the trenches of I-League mediocrity to unprecedented levels in such a short span of time would prove too much.
Admittedly, the change in landscape is substantial. The players now find themselves playing in the midst of over 30,000 fans, alongside stars of international repute and have proven international coaches to expedite their growth. They appear unfazed by the sudden spike in interest towards the sport. Instead, they have a positive approach towards it – they’re using the tournament as a platform to showcase their talent and further their chances of representing India in the future.
“New faces for Indian football”
The lack of a household name in Indian football is one of the many reasons for its regression in the face of cricket’s rise to popularity. There’s not one footballer that the Indian populace can collectively identify as a symbol for the sport. Even Bhaichung Bhutia, the most successful Indian footballer in recent history, is popular only among the ardent football lovers.
Bhaichung recently highlighted the need for footballing icons: “The Indian players need to become household names and just one star is not enough. You need 20 star players. With the I-League, we couldn’t achieve this.”
The former Indian striker can be credited with carrying Indian football for many years in his prime, and, following his retirement in 2012, he has passed the baton on to Sunil Chhetri.
However, as Bhutia rightly said, one name isn’t enough. To put India on the global football map, it needs several. The masses have a big role to play in this. ‘Fan favorites’ go a long way in providing an identity to any sport in any nation and expedites the development of a ‘fan culture’, something Indian football has sorely missed.
ISL can create these stars
The Indian Super League has the potential to prove that India never lacked talent. FIFA President Sepp Blatter branded India as a “sleeping giant” in reference to its latent potential. In order to achieve its immediate objective of popularizing football, the ISL will aim to tap into a goldmine of undiscovered local talent.
NorthEast United’s goalkeeper T P Rehenesh, and Kerala Blasters full back Sandesh Jhingan have so far been among the ISL’s best finds.
Rehenesh made his debut against FC Goa and has since impressed coach Ricki Herbert.
Following his team’s defeat against Pune, the former New Zealand manager said, “The boy in goal – I think he was fantastic. Rehenesh was an unknown quantity when the tournament got underway. He was outstanding again tonight. Without him, the scoreline may have reflected differently. So if we’re going to grab something from tonight, let’s acknowledge that performance.” It speaks volumes that an ‘unknown quantity’ is currently the first choice goalkeeper ahead of Alexandros Tzorvas, who was a starter for Greece in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup.
Although traditionally a centre back, 21-year old Sandesh Jhingan has been deployed on the left and right sides of defence for Kerala Blasters. He’s not the most spectacular, but his workrate and fearless attitude have driven him to be a vital cog in the David James led franchise. Bhaichung Bhutia hailed Jhingan as one of the best defensive prospects in the country. We’re finally getting a glimpse of his quality. His fledgling career has been riddled with injuries that have only made him stronger – both physically and mentally – and is reflected in his performances.
The number of Indians that have shone through the razzmatazz of the ISL in its opening month is testament to what the tournament can achieve in its future editions. Its role in shifting the spotlight towards Indian footballers cannot be overstated.
India’s number 1 goalkeeper Subrata Pal spoke of his newfound fame, “Today when we travel or go to a shopping mall, people come up to me and say, 'You play for Ranbir Kapoor's team, right?’ This is new."
He goes on: “Players like Durga Boro and Subhash Singh are getting recognised today. Earlier people only knew Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri.”
This wasn’t possible before. Had the Indian Super League failed to materialize, these players would still remain, in the words of Ricki Herbert, ‘unknown quantities’. Instead, they have the opportunity to draw on the knowledge, experience and ability of globally renowned players like Del Piero, Joan Capdevila, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, and Luis Garcia on a daily basis.
The future has never seemed brighter.
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