Bigger and longer! India's football faithful have been crying out for a local football competition with just those characteristics. After several false dawns, their prayers are about to be answered.
The Indian Super League that previously was a two-month football extravaganza at best, has returned bigger in size and longer in duration. With 10 teams set to fight it out for four months, the competition has added a bit more substance, but the question marks still persist, as bigger and longer will also have to mean better.
So what can we expect from the ISL this season? How much will the changes affect the competition?
Looking at the obvious ones, inclusion of two new teams would mean more Indian players would be involved in the league this season. 165 domestic players have contracts with the ISL franchises for the 2017-18 edition, and more critically only with their ISL teams. With the I-League set to run in tandem with the ISL, there won't be any overlapping players in the two leagues and thus those spots can be taken up by newer domestic faces.
A merged league where this larger pool of players would have been able to compete with each other would have been ideal, but the current scenario is still an improvement on last season in spite of the fact that the players in the I-League will receive much lesser attention, importance and, most importantly, remuneration.
The impact of the reduction in the number of foreign players in the starting XIs from six to five might be slightly overstated as Indian players are still unlikely to occupy key areas of the pitch like central defence, central midfield and forward positions, with the spot of a goalkeeper being an exception. India has a pool of fine goalkeepers and that reflects in the fact that there are only two foreign shot-stoppers in the ISL this season.
It is likely that almost every team will have an Indian goalkeeper between the sticks and Chennaiyin FC's Karanjit Singh reveals how coaches have stepped up their preparations, not just in terms of shot-stopping, but also with respect to ball retention.
"The coach wants us to keep the ball because if the goalkeeper hits the ball long, it becomes a 50-50 ball and there is a risk of losing it. This is the trend for goalkeepers all over the world and many coaches in the ISL are implementing this here. This is a great opportunity for us to learn these aspects from top coaches and prove our worth this season," Karanjit said at the ISL Media Day last week.
The addition of two new teams in the ISL has enabled it to claim that it is a "proper league". The assertion is primarily based on the increase in the league's duration from two months to four. On a global scale, that remains negligible, but doubling the duration of the league might have plenty of benefits in store for the ISL.
Although the I-League has always had a four-month span, the level of football is certainly higher in the ISL. So the opportunity for the players to be in high-level action for a longer course of time in a more competitive league spells good news for the players' development.
"If you give the best facilities to the players, there’s no excuse for the Indian boys. ISL does that in terms of stay, in terms of coaching, in terms of media and I think ISL is at a very high level," Kerala Blasters assistant coach Thangboi Singto told the media last week.
Singto, who was previously in charge of I-League team Shillong Lajong, also felt that it's better for Indian players to play in just one league than two as it helps them be in better physical and mental condition. "In the last 2-3 seasons, we always complained about fatigue and all the hassles of the leagues being sandwiched between each other. I think the way this league is planned for longer period with more rest and recovery time for the players, the players will be fresh. I believe the fresher the players are for the next game, they perform better and we can see better football," he added.
Fresher and fitter players will also help Indian national coach Stephen Constantine step up his team's preparations next year for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019.
The longer duration of the league will also see teams having a bigger gap between their two consecutive matches. Last season, the average gap between two consecutive matches for teams was 3.68 days. Although the total number of games to be played in the league within a week will remain the same this season, the average gap between two matches for any given club has risen to 5.1 days.
The additional 1.42 days may not seem significant, considering the league's overall duration is doubled, but in terms of match preparation it makes a big difference.
"This season you will see a team playing a certain way at the start, and maybe end with a different style as during the week you will have time to change whatever that needs to be changed. Earlier, there was no chance to change anything as there was no proper training. We used to play, travel, recover, travel again and play again. This year will be different, we will have time to train, we can adapt our strategy to each opponent that we are playing against," said FC Goa midfielder Bruno Pinheiro, who returned to The Gaurs having played for them in the first season.
Last season there were numerous occasions when teams had less than three days to prepare for a match. If you look at FC Goa, they had four matches last season where they were afforded just two days to recover from the previous game, travel to the location of their next game and prepare for it. This season, there will be just one such game where FC Goa will have less than three days to prepare.
"With so many foreign coaches coming here, the longer season will be beneficial. They will be able to inculcate their philosophies into the players with more time on the training pitch. That will also help the Indian players to understand it better. This is a huge opportunity for the Indians to learn different aspects of the game especially from someone like Rene Meulensteen," Singto explained.
So with the ISL and the overall domestic structure being a bit more settled and substantial this time around, there was a chance for the league to lay foundations for a long-term project, where teams would move towards functioning more like proper clubs than franchises.
The ISL hasn't been able to buck the trend of managerial changes at its franchises, leaving no room for continuity. This season, only two clubs will begin the new campaign with managers that were present last time around. Alexandre Guimaraes, who helped Mumbai City FC to their first semi-final finish last season, and Bengaluru FC's Albert Roca are the only managers to get a second bite at the cherry in Indian football this year.
Every coach comes with his own philosophy and ways of functioning. The perpetual lack of direction has left several teams with a lack of identity. For teams playing in a young league like the ISL, the need for an identity gets even more greater.
"The club must have some philosophy, they must have some style. If you make changes every year, you will always be at the beginning. Maybe if you take four steps, and then make changes, you start at the first step again. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson's famous dance moves, you are walking, but not moving. The club must decide what they want to do and then other steps must be taken," said FC Pune City coach Ranko Popovic, giving an honest assessment of the lack of continuity at ISL teams.
The lack of managerial stability has had a trickle-down effect on the recruitment policy of the clubs as well. With no certainty over the manager's position for future seasons, teams are unwilling to offer players long-term contracts which thereby offers no assurance to the player as well.
This season, out of the 165 players, only 31 players have contracts that run more than a year. So 81.22% of the players that will play the ISL this season will be without clubs come the end of the year, if they are not re-signed. If you look at the past, before the start of the second and third season when no domestic draft took place, teams re-signed five domestic players on an average. So if that trend continues after the fourth season, around 80 domestic players could be without clubs. This accounts to 50% of the domestic players involved this season.
"Playing at one club, or under one coach would be the ideal situation because obviously the coach would understand you better. He would keep you there, he would ask the club to keep you there because you play the style he wants," Kean Lewis who was released by Delhi Dynamos last year, despite being the second-highest Indian scorer in the league told reporters last week.
"The Indian situation is such that either the coach changes due to management or a lot of players change due to management, we don’t have much of a choice. Ideally we would play three years at the same club under the same coach, but it is a question whether you will be provided with the opportunity or not," he added.
One of the more promising players in the league, Lewis played at Delhi under Gianluca Zambrotta in 2016, then shifted base to Mohun Bagan in the 2017 I-League, before now being signed by FC Pune City under Popovic. The youngster admitted the struggles a player faces to adapt to three different cities, clubs and coaching styles.
Lewis' views were echoed by Blasters' Arata Izumi, who felt staying at one club helps the player "understand the culture of the club". Izumi was among the few lucky ones to have stability in his career having played at the now-defunct Pune FC in the I-League for six years during his prime.
"I think it is very important to have a base of players who know the club, and how to handle the dressing room. We have players like that in the dressing room like Laxmikant Kattimani, Mandar Rao Dessai who have already played for Goa. They are big names in Goa, even in the dressing room everyone respects them. I think it is important to have players like these who can welcome new players and make them understand what it's like to be a player of FC Goa," Gaurs' midfielder Pinheiro stated.
Having got bigger and longer, the league is certainly set to reap its benefits. The league might be able to go up a notch in intensity and quality and the national team may benefit from a more settled and relaxed schedule serving Indian football well for the next couple of years. For a young and developing league that ISL is, it has done well to expand in size and duration. That's the way to grow in stature.
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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 17:58:00 IST