On last Sunday I became part of the history. I was part of the huge cheering crowd In Salt Lake stadium and observed ISL taking small steps which can turn into huge leap for Indian Football. I was there when artists from the eight cities including Anandan Shivamani played their various form of drums in a glamorous opening ceremony, I was there when (sadly) Priyanka Chopra spent more time talking about the owners (some of them her colleagues) than the football icons beside them, I was there when Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar sat side by side to watch a football match, the first match of the ISL, Indian Super League, between Atletico De Kolkata and Mumbai City FC.
I am not going into minor details like Kolkata won the match by a 3-0 scoreline or Fikru Teferra, Kolkata’s Ethiopian striker, became the first scorer in the history of ISL. But let’s look into the bigger picture.
India has a long history in football. Like many British colonies, in India also the football were started by the English people but Indians quickly caught on the game especially after Mohun Bagan’s victory in the 1911 IFA Shield final. Indian national team started their journey post independence and in first 15 years of independent India were quite a force in the Asian level. They won the gold in Aisan games of 1951 and 1962 and were fourth in 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
But post that period the performance started to drop, the other Asian teams through their hard work and more focused scientific approach leaped across when India fall behind and now with their FIFA ranking hovering around 150-160 India can only be called a ‘sleeping giant’ as referred by Sepp Blatter.
So what can ISL bring to this cricket crazy nation? The answer could be many folds. Obviously with proper publicity and marketing this can become hugely popular, creates new fan bases, spread the game to the remote parts of the country (like happened in cricket) and inspire a new generation to take up this game more seriously. But along with that this should also be hugely beneficial for the players.
Firstly it will give them a great chance to follow some of the most modern techniques and skills thanks the coaches coming from some of the mainstream footballing countries with vast experience. Playing with good foreign players and icon players, some of the biggest stars in world football in their own right, will not only inspire the Indian youngsters but will also provide the key insights about the game in general. The important factor would be the exposure which the Indian football will get through ISL. Some of the biggest corporate are part of this venture and with their business policy they will ensure that this tournament is well known and news about this is well spread out. Already foreign media from the countries like UK and Spain has shown significant interest in ISL. Team Kolkata’s partnership with Athletico Madrid is a great boon for the team as well as the league. Someone like Arsene Wenger is speaking about ISL in his press conference and hopes that this can bring new dawn for Indian football, this is wonderful.
The quality of football in ISL is definitely much better than the domestic I-league or the state level leagues. The teams are playing much fast paced and technically better football. And it looks great when the Indian players also doing pretty well with respect to speed and skill like their foreign team mates. Folkes like Arnab Mandal, Subhasish Roy Choudhury, Subhash Singh has already in focus with their performances. If they can utilize their learning from ISL in the international matches that will be hugely beneficial for the national team.
ISL also brought a more professional approach in the overall game. Hope some of these will be replicated in I-league too, like the foreign player selection for Indian clubs. ISL is clearly showing that the current group of foreign players like Dudu and Ranti are no match with the foreigners playing in ISL despite having a higher price tag on them and that raises the question about the player recruitment process of clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and proves that the rumour about club officials hiring players based on the commission they are getting than the player’s skill may have some truth behind them.
But with all these great aspect are ISL perfect? If now then how could we improve ISL more and make it more meaningful for the world football scenario. May be I can share couple of ideas.
ISL clubs should get under FIFA registration and somehow get eligible to utilize the summer transfer window. If ISL continues to take place in September to December then these clubs can easily sign a few good quality young as well as aged players in half a season loans. Let them play for the clubs till December and then go back to their parent club in January. Obviously even the younger players are involved in reserve squad leagues and under-21 leagues but still we see many Premier league clubs loan out their players for the clubs in championship teams. Hoep ISL can also get involved there.
I absolutely love the way Kolkata franchise get in collaboration with Atletico Madrid. Delhi and Pune have also follow suit with their association with Feyenoord and Fiorentina. It is a win-win scenario for both the parties and I think all the remaining teams also should look to get in a relationship with any club from one of top football nations. Let me explain why I think it will be beneficial for the ISL clubs. If the ISL clubs have a partnership with one of those big clubs they can easily go and use their training facilities which are currently much better than what you get anywhere in India. They can also play practice matches with their players from their academy or reserve teams, get tips from coaching and physical training staffs and even learn from some of their first squad players.
Not only that, those clubs would definitely have a look into the performance of their ISL Counterparts (Atletico Madrid is already doing it) and if some young Indian player can attract them with his performance and technical skill they can be easily selected to be part of those clubs setup through reserve teams.
I also think at some point AIFF needs to find a way to combine I-league and ISL. Otherwise after this high quality football in ISL if we again go back to our slow, meaningless long ball based football in I-league that will not make any sense. Already I-league does not generate enough interest and now with the Indian fans watching top quality football in their own city may become more disinterested about I-league if the quality does not include. So somehow I think it is very important that there is a way we combine the traditional big clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Dempo and others get in some kind of partnership with the ISL clubs and embrace their professional approach.
I am very hopeful about ISL’s success and if I go by the quality of football and the support it got from the fans in the very first week of the league, this year’s ISL is already a success. Now if this can sustain for years to come and also bring the Indian football to significant spot in world football that needs to be seen. And with all the heroics from Virat Kohli, Saina Nehwal and Sushil Kumar I will also dream of a day when we can also cheer for someone like Subrata Pal saving a powerful long range drive from Sunil Chhetri in the final minutes of the El Clasico or Manchester Darby.