(By Rahul Pandey)
It was on 12TH October 2014 that a giant leap of faith was taken by a group of billionaire actors, cricketers and business tycoons. Orchestrated by the Chairperson and founder of the Reliance foundation and most of all an avid believer in the magic of sports, Mrs. Nita Ambani, the Hero Indian Super league was kicked off at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. Today after about 3 years, Indian football stands at a place where it hasn’t been for almost half a century. Attaining a spot in the top-100, having hosted and played in a staggering U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017 feat. the historic first ever FIFA event goal, winning 12 games in a trot at senior level, a record third only to Germany and Brazil and qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2019, the Indian football has surely come a long way. And in midst of all the prolonged debate, ISL has surely contributed largely in shaping the football atmosphere in a cricket frenzy nation.
At the time when the league was launched, a set of simple objectives were taken, such as to build up a decent craze of football throughout the nation, using popular brands such as Sachin Tendulkar, John Abraham, Sourav Ganguly, Abhishek Bachchan etc. These were people who could make the audience associate with the beautiful game. What it did achieve though within it’s first edition was a more serious outlook to the sport and its infrastructure. Under the lights of elite players such as Elano Blumer, Luis Garcia, Robert Pires, the young and enthusiast Indian players from the I-league podium got a more enhanced understanding of the game and its startegies. Foreign elite clubs such as Atletico de Madrid and Fiorentina FC had already invested in Indian football, gaining ownership of Atletico de Kolkata and Pune FC respectively.
The most important element of sports is, the fans. They are the ones who make the sport look great. Star Sports, that had given the primal age sport of Kabaddi a new identity, left no cards unturned, for football as well. A vast promotional campaign of ‘Let’s Football’ was taken all across the nation. And after 61 games and 129 goals with an average attendance of 24,357 per game which was the fourth highest for any football league, the talk had changed from ‘Bhai isey kaun dekhega ‘ to ‘ Bhai ye dekh! ‘. Indian Super League had made its mark into the heart of Indian fans.
One of the key highlights of this was when the Atletico de Kolkata team, including players from the Indian contingent exhibited the ISL trophy in a jam packed San Vicente Caledron, Madrid, Spain which has been considered as one of the most thrilling destinations in world football.
The talented lot of Indian players had now become a key figure in the footballing minds of our nation. From scoring spectacular goals to being portrayed as national icons through the means of top commercials, meant that football had become a visible and viable option for millions of young aspirants in the world’s second largest population.
ISL made sure that we Indians knew who our proud representatives were in world football. Jeje Lalpekhlua, Jackichand Singh, Romeo Fernandes, Eugeneson Lyndgoh and ofcourse the golden boy of Indian football, Sandesh Jinghan have been one of the many key discoveries of the league. Under their balance of attacking and defensive discipline the national team has looked more balanced than what it used to be before.
With every season, new players, new coaches and more fans have inducted an Indian version of romance with the game. But with sucess has come a more vat criticism. Many experts and fans have also criticised ISL of being nothing more than a glamorous party of a couple of months that is quite far away from being given the status of A-division domestic football league. It is because of the scheme of more foreign and marquee players who are out of their time, than the Indian players. All these surfacial queries finally do have an answer; ISL 2017.
The new season has come up with a lot of amendments that would regale the league’s status as one of Asia’s top notch soccer leagues. With the introduction of 2 new teams, Bengaluru FC and FC Jamshedpur, ISL this time would lead to a 4 month action with a whole lot of games, in proper home and away league fashion. Getting the flambuoyant Bengaluru FC I-league franchise is indeed a smart move as the club has been at the forefront of club football revolution in India, having recently become the first ever Indian club to reach the AFC Asian Football Confederation semi-finals.
The new season also features a new limit of Indian players in a team, which has reached to 17 from the number of 14. This looks surely to help maintain the football fever which hasn’t yet sunk in after last month’s U-17 World Cup.
ISL 2017 will all but guarantee an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup spot, i.e the teams in the cash-rich league will have more than a silverware and monetary gains to play for. A continental spot is always a matter of prestige, no matter how big or small a club is, and ISL clubs fighting for a place in the AFC Cup will add more bite to the league and consequently, add more substance to the contests.
As ISL clubs have deeper pockets than their I-League counterparts, having them play in AFC competitions will also stand to benefit India’s AFC Member Association (AFC MA) ranking in the future. India is currently 15th in the current AFC MA rankings.
All said and done, India is a developing nation and the same goes for the country’s football. Rather than looking at it as a useless and expensive party, we should look at it as the Americans did to Major League Soccer [MLS]. The league that over the years has made USA a harsh contender and an exquisite destination in world football, but surely with a bit of time taken. It is exactly what ISL and Indian football needs, keeping in mind what we had before it all started.
So as the action commences on 17Th November, we should keep in mind the current motto, ‘ Future hai Football ‘ and for Indian football, ‘ Future hai ISL ‘.