ISL 2017-18: With new season set to see teams battling it out for four months, true test awaits the revamped league
As the ISL grows to a four-month season with less star value and more teams, this is probably the headiest moment for the league.
A “proper” league. In its short existence, the Indian Super League (ISL) has often invited criticism that it is not a normal league competition. Its length and impact lies under doubt. The Jamshedpur FC head coach Steve Coppell alluded to the concerns earlier this week when he spoke to Sportstar, "If it has to benefit Indian football it needs to be a bigger league so that there is more demand on Indian players to raise their standard and produce better football."
Well, time to put that to test. As the ISL grows to a four-month season with less star value and more teams, this is probably the headiest moment for the league. Its position at the top of the Indian football pyramid has been cemented. Bengaluru FC bring heft to the competition while Jamshedpur FC are the latest upstart who want to give Indian football’s flash mob a try.
This dance will last doubly longer than before. To what intents and purposes, one cannot be sure to say. While the unseemly performance goes on in the front, it covers the daylight murder of another competition. There is an AFC Champions League qualification spot on offer for the I-League champion this season; but with 2 PM kickoffs and gross neglect, it gasps for air. The erstwhile premier competition is likely to be given its final go.
Now that the ISL lies supreme and ascendant, what should we expect? If the future is football—as this season’s slogan goes—what kind of future are we to behold? The glimpses will be seen this season. No longer are the ISL teams looking to drive themselves forward on the back of marquee players – Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown (Kerala Blasters), and Robbie Keane (ATK) are notable exceptions.
Rather, with the ISL deciding that six Indian players—up from five—should be on the pitch at all points of time, there seems to be a commitment to developing local players. However, it is unlikely that Indian footballers will breach the core areas of the side. Coppell’s answer to Sportstar revealed as much.
"With the number of foreigners reduced this time, most of the teams will be looking to use them in the spine of the team. The foreigners are going to occupy positions like that of the centre-back, centre-halves and the striker. We will be certainly working that way, looking for stability in the centre of defence and midfield. We can also opt for a couple of quick strikers who can produce some goals for us. You are certainly looking to make the influence of foreign players as big as possible."
This is the reality with which the ISL will grapple. Lip service will be paid to youth development and opportunities for Indian players but it is the foreign footballers who will give a team an edge over the other. The signing of low-key foreigners may have a different consequence – the ISL may get fitter players who can provide a quicker tempo to matches. The quality of football, however, shall remain decidedly low.
For Indian crowds who witnessed the FIFA under-17 World Cup this October, the ISL is likely to spark a slide towards the familiar. In the final, England and Spain squared off at a terrific pace and the football was of a quality seldom seen on Indian football grounds. To expect a repeat of that during the ISL would be foolhardy.
The quality of football is also affected by the churn in every squad. Continuity is rarely associated with ISL teams. To wit, Delhi Dynamos shone through the league phase last season and made the playoffs. Yet, none of the previous season’s players were considered worthy of retention. Overwhelming change is the only constant.
The ISL’s decision to expand meant that only a maximum of five players could be retained by a franchise. But even the managers could not survive the desire to transform. Only Mumbai City FC have retained their head coach from the previous campaign – Alexandre Guimaraes. Perhaps, the financial argument will lead to more familiar squads in the coming years.
The rule change which mandates six Indian players in the playing eleven and the downgrade in marquee names has led to lower salaries. Furthermore, Mumbai City CEO Indranil Das Blah has publicly claimed that sponsorships have also grown by 50 percent. With no threat of relegation, the ISL franchises are in a good moment financially. Despite the major losses from previous years, a road to better sustainability is being charted out. The desire of the owners to join the ISL is understandable as the league has firmly placed itself as the supreme force in Indian football. If not now, when?
The 8 PM kickoffs and the double headers on Sundays should invite more attention but scheduling irregularities will persist. Teams will have busy and lean periods; only Monday and Tuesday have no matches. This is a consequence of a league still finding its feet; its interests and financial foundations remain hazy at best.
Come Friday, Indian football’s new reality will be realised. The ISL is now firmly perched at the top, notwithstanding the meek protestations by football administrators. Their actions involving the I-League provide a better reflection of their preferences.
The ISL is here to stay for a while but regressions lurk in the corner. It might be useful to keep them in mind, even as the flash mob seeks to deflect the distractions. The much-derided performance is the main act now.
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