ISL season 2: Is India ready for football?

isl logoLast year’s World Cup created the great impetus for football on its way toward global dominance. The conquest of North America, sparked by an unexpectedly steep rise in interest during the tournament, was certainly a huge step forward, but later that year there was a similar development half a world away.

The emergence of the Indian Super League has been one of the stories of the decade. Even though football has long been keenly followed all across Asia, its largest nations have always had a hard time catching up not only with Europe and South America, but also with some of their own, much smaller, neighbors. India, a nation of 1.2 billion, has never managed to produce a team that would be able to get to a World Cup and by the time the Super League was launched it was well behind the Maldives in FIFA charts.

Instead of turning to grassroots development, India decided to go the other way round. A mere 125 years after it reached Indian shores and caught the imagination of local boys in Kolkata, football would make it’s grand entrance with a little help of some very famous players.

FIFA didn’t give its approval to the ISL, but it didn’t ban it either. The traditional I-League still has its place within AFC structure, but there’s a logic to FIFA’s silent acceptance of new competitions. Even though the I-League includes clubs with enormous backing, some of which enjoy over a hundred years of rivalry, like Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, it has long been obvious that those clubs have neither the appeal nor the stamina to put India’s name on the list of countries where football has managed to emerge as the nation’s favorite pastime. In fact, football in India even had a hard time competing against certain traditional sports, like kabaddi, and when it came to challenging cricket, it never came close.

The traditionally structured I-League couldn’t take the matter any further, but then a solution suddenly presented itself. The most amazing thing about it was that the blueprint for football’s surge was created within the ranks of the sport it was supposed to compete with. The emergence of the Indian Premier League as the world’s foremost cricket club competition was an obvious example to follow.

Formed in 2008, the IPL quickly managed to build brand value of over 7 billion dollars giving both cricket fans and players what was sorely needed – the world’s top quality club competition involving the finest players from across the globe. The key to its success was that it was more comparable to the NBA or NFL rather than the English Premier League: it is a unique concept that brought about the highest-value club competition within the game, with no promotion/relegation and with its clubs working as franchises. Even more importantly – with the duration of a single season being just under two months each year, the players are free to compete elsewhere, thus leaving enough room for the traditional Indian league system.

When ISL, the IPL’s football doppelganger, finally came into being in 2014, it was an almost exact copy of the cricket league. The eight-team league would last for two months, leading to play-offs, without relegation or promotion. The only thing that was so obviously different was the level of players available for the ISL.

New competitions in football don’t stand a chance against the already established ones when it comes to attracting top players, as shown by the rather slow growth of the MLS. But now that the US major league has started attracting current stars, a window of opportunity was there for another league elsewhere to go for the veterans whose names and moves on the pitch are capable of drawing a lot of attention, but whose stamina is way below even medium-level competition.

Thankfully, quite a lot of guys fitting the description were willing to become a part of Indian football history. World champions Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, Marco Materazzi and David Trezeguet, UCL winners Nicolas Anelka and Luis Garcia, and major stars like Zico, David Platt, Elano, David James, Fredrik Ljungberg and Joan Capdevila joined the ISL clubs either as players or as managers, bringing with them the attention of the world.

More importantly, Indian football supporters were quick to jump on the bandwagon, making the ISL an instant hit. The league’s average attendance of 26,505 was almost level with Spain’s La Liga, and significantly above the Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1, leaving only England’s Premier League and the dominant Bundesliga on top.

Admittedly, the ISL season comprises only 61 games, as compared to 380 in English or Spanish top level leagues, but this matters little. Two of the eight clubs had more than 45 thousand spectators per game and it was only the teams’ small stadiums that prevented Pune and Goa from attracting a larger audience. You just need to compare it to the I-league’s 12,088 per game to understand the sheer scale of success the ISL achieved after only two months of its existence.

The league was nicely balanced with clubs coming from largest cities across the Subcontinent, like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, as well as some relatively small towns with long footballing traditions, like Pune and the former Portuguese colony Goa. Atletico de Kolkata, the club that won league’s opening match, were the winners in the finals as well.

There have been lots of changes both in the teams’ rosters and within staff ahead of the new season. From October to December 2015 the league will feature many stars of yesteryear, like Florent Malouda, the Liverpool duo of John Arne Riise and Josemi, Barca’s Simao Sabrosa, Manuele Blasi, Didier Zokora and Tuncay Sanli, but also much younger players who failed to rise to level expected of them, like former Arsenal youth Sanchez Watt.

Eight clubs will play in a home-and-away round-robin system (although somewhat different to what most other leagues do, as one game per day is the norm in ISL). By mid-December half of the clubs will be out of the competition, while the top four will proceed to the play-offs. This could be tricky, as witnessed by last year’s league stage winners Chennaiyin, who were beaten by Kerala in an extremely exciting semifinal.

Factor in that all of the teams were separated by just eight points after a 14-game season, and it’s easy to understand why the league managed to draw so much attention in its first year. If it manages to offer more of the same during its second campaign, it surely won’t be long before some of football’s current stars decide to spend three months on the Subcontinent.

And that brings us back to the start of this article: as they begin to see top players in their own country, more and more young Indians will be attracted to the beautiful game. With the sheer number of academies European clubs have opened on Indian soil in recent years, it would only be a matter of time before football sees its first Indian superstars, and that huge country earns right to compete at World Cup.

If you live in India, or if you watched ISL games last season on TV, give us your opinion.

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  1. Even before the ISL i was a following indian football i used to watch I-League but with ISL football is no longer only EPL LA LIGA people talk about isl in schools colleges and i even went to see a match and the atmosphere was brilliant

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