The Indian Super League (ISL) returns with a revamped format on 17 November, and the fourth season promises to be bigger and better than ever. With two new teams — Jamshedpur FC and Bengaluru FC joining the fray, India's premier football league will now be played for four months.
The league has also acquired recognition from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the champions will get a coveted spot in the AFC Cup, making ISL a "proper league", in the words of the organisers, coaches and players. One of the most important changes to the format is that clubs will now have to field at least six Indian players. Until last season, each side could play up to six foreigners, which will now be reduced to five.
While this move has been touted as a positive step to encourage and develop local footballers, the responsibility being shared by the more-experienced foreign players increases. Clubs have also shifted their strategy from signing famous marquee players, and are focusing more on young upcoming Indians.
However, there are still plenty of foreign players in ISL this season, who could win Indian fans hearts and play a crucial role for their respective clubs. Here's a look at the international players who could make a difference in the next four months.
The 36-year-old Bulgarian is arguably the most attractive new signing for the upcoming season. The former Manchester United striker could massively boost Kerala Blasters’ bid for the title under coach Rene Meulensteen, who also worked with Berbatov as the assistant coach of United.
Berbatov, who is his country’s leading goal-scorer, won two Premier League titles with United and was also awarded the Golden Boot in 2010-11 for scoring 20 goals in that season. With his golden touch and acute awareness, Berbatov looks all set to torment defences in India, as he has done all through his career.
Apart from being a prolific goal-scoring addition, the global star promises to attract hordes of loyal fans everywhere he goes.
If the Kerala Blasters have signed a proven world-class forward in Berbatov, they have bolstered their defence with the signing of another former Manchester United player, Brown. Brown, like Berbatov, will be reunited with Meulensteen in the Kerala team, and the trio could be what the club needs to win the elusive ISL trophy.
The 38-year-old Englishman is a versatile addition, and will be expected to play the leading role in turning Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium into a fortress. Brown was a regular fixture in the United team for over a decade, and won five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, two Football League Cups and two Champions League trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Signing Irish striker Keane was almost a coup for defending champions ATK. The 37-year-old player last played for MLS club LA Galaxy and was being pursued by several European and American clubs. However, he chose to pick the Kolkata club and ISL’s shorter four-month duration could have been a decisive factor.
Keane will have a familiar face in charge as ATK have signed his former Tottenham Hotspur teammate Teddy Sheringham as their head coach. Keane’s persistence in front of the goal will not only help him get on the scoresheet multiple times throughout the season, but it will also create a lot of opportunities for his fellow teammates. His willingness to take on the opposition without any inhibitions will be an asset for ATK as they look to defend their title.
The 34-year-old centre-back was one of the standout players for Mumbai City FC last season and helped them reach the semi-finals. Head coach Alexandre Guimaraes will be hoping that Goian’s steely presence in the Mumbai back-line and leadership role on field takes them all the way to the trophy, this time around.
The 6’1-tall defender’s aerial abilities made him one of the most dangerous players in the ISL as he could easily pierce defences while being a rock at the back. In the 2016 season, Goian featured in every single game for Mumbai City FC and also scored a goal. His last-ditch tackles, tenacity and experience make him an irreplaceable player in Guimaraes’ team.
The Canadian centre-forward took the ISL by the storm in the league’s debut season in 2014 when he was Kerala Blasters’ highest goal-scorer with five goals and led them to the inaugural final. He was then signed by ATK for the next two seasons, and continued his extraordinary goal-scoring run with 11 and seven goals respectively.
Hume, who is the overall leading goal-scorer in ISL with 23 goals in 46 matches, is back to Kerala Blasters for the 2017-18 season. The 33-year-old is a huge fan favourite in Kerala and will be aiming to repeat his heroics from the opening season for the Blasters. Under coach Meulensteen, he could form a blossoming partnership with Berbatov and lead the team to their first title.
Since the club’s inception in 2013, Bengaluru FC have won a title in every season – the I-League trophies in 2013-14 and 2015-16 and the Federation Cups in 2014-15 and 2016-17. One of the players who has been instrumental in their four-year rise as a footballing powerhouse is defender John Johnson, who has been with the club since the very beginning.
The 29-year-old Englishman has been one of the most crucial cogs in the Bengaluru machinery and his experience in I-League will come handy when the club makes the transition to ISL. Apart from being an extremely solid defender, Johnson is also handy in front and has four goals to his names. He can be influential in both attacking and defensive set-pieces and will be one of the reasons why Bengaluru FC are favourites for the title.
The Uruguayan striker was the top scorer for NorthEast United FC in the 2016 season and will be a very valuable addition to FC Pune City’s line-up for the upcoming four months. Pune’s lack of goals proved to be their undoing last year as they finished sixth, and the team management has sought to strengthen their attack with Alfaro’s signing.
A tenacious forward, Alfaro is a smart player who makes the most of whatever opportunities he gets in front of goal. After his outstanding first season in the ISL, where he scored five goals in 13 matches, most of the Indian clubs were looking to sign Alfaro. By securing his services, Pune will look to pose a strong challenge in the battle for the ISL 2017-18 title.
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Updated Date: Nov 16, 2017 18:10:01 IST