Why Indian Super League is a glorious chapter in the rise of Indian Football?
If you are a football fan, what’s the most common footballing memory for you? Wait a second, let me rephrase that. What’s the most common football memory as a football fan in India? Didn’t that just narrow down your options. Let me make it more difficult. What’s the most common Indian Football memory as a Football fan in India? Finding it harder to recollect. Thought so. If you think hard enough, you may successfully come up with a handful of moments, like Indian team qualifying for the 1950 FIFA world cup, or an exhibition from Chhetri or Baichung. Isn’t this a sad state of affairs for a nation with billion citizens? But we are glad Indian Super League has something to say about it.
Ever since its inception in 2014, ISL has made strides in the right direction to become synonymous to European League football for years to come. We understand it is hard to overcome the popularity of the likes of the Premier League, but that’s a tough ask considering we have been accustomed to it for more than 2 decades now. Yet it has been a breath of fresh air for old school Indian football fans at the mercy of I-League. While most of us might not have heard of it, we definitely remember Mohun Bagan, mostly due to its rich history. And you can’t blame the normal audience to be more patriotic when the league hardly makes an effort to market its position.
ISL on the other hand surely learned from the elder brother, IPL, how to turn heads. Just combine glamour and sizzle with the sport and voila! You have the perfect recipe for success. Presence of famous personalities like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virat Kohli, John Abraham, Ranbir Kapoor would attract the crowd to the stadiums like never before. One would argue that the glamour quotient would steal the limelight from the actual sport, but it wasn’t the case. For the hardcore fans, a combination of international superstars with domestic talent was more than enough to pull the audient towards the television. It was a breakthrough for Indian football with viewership numbers surpassing the World Cup and Premier League. It ranked as the 4th best league in the world behind the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga in average stadium attendance in its inaugural season. Now that’s some solid start.
It’s a league cum knockout style tournament where the top 4 teams from the group stages compete to reach the final and be crowned as the champions. It’s different from traditional league tournaments where the teams aren’t relegated or promoted. The tournament has rather grown over the years by including more teams in the competition. 8 teams participated in the first season with 11 teams playing in the ongoing season. In a way, MLS in the United States is the perfect analogy. Not just in the format of the tournament but also the legends of the game gracing the tournament in the twilight years of their career.
Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, Fowler, Pires, Luis Garcia, Forlán, Anelka, Tim Cahill, Malouda, Materazzi, Trezeguet, Berbatov. In our wildest dreams would we have not witnessed such a star-studded lineup on Indian soil. A charity or promotional event maybe, but not playing alongside Indian players or even coaching them. They bring a mindset, work ethic, skills, expertise of champions who did it on the biggest teams alongside and against the greatest players ever. It is a wonderful opportunity to be a part of the same dressing room and learn the trades of the game. Plus the selfies for the bragging rights, just kidding. What once was the far fetched dream of every Indian footballer growing up has become a very possible reality.
This isn’t the only international presence in the league. ISL has tied up with the Premier League since its early years to help develop Indian football. This agreement focuses on governance, nourishing the talent, commercial growth, administration and wider community development. Both the leagues renewed this agreement earlier this year to further strengthen the ties. We have also seen similar partnerships at a team level. Manchester City owners bought a majority stake in Mumbai City FC. How wonderful to get coaching tips from Guardiola himself? Atlético Madrid also was the former co-owner of Atlético de Kolkata, now ATK Mohun Bagan FC after the merger. Involvement of European leagues and clubs bring a much-needed exposure to Indian football.
I remember Sunil Chhetri’s interview where he mentioned how the media creates a hero out of a player when he has already accomplished something, unlike European nations who capture the rise of the star from his teenage years. Lower media coverage and exposure lead to lower viewership which leads to economic struggle, poor infrastructure and facilities. Indian league players make a cent on a dollar compared to a below-average European league player. It’s a vicious cycle but ISL is trying to break this wheel. International Management Group, Reliance and Star Sports are all making sure to create a footballing culture in one of the biggest markets in the world.
On similar lines, PL-ISL Next Generation Cup was organized this year. Under-14 sides from Manchester United, Chelsea and Southampton competed against the Under-15 players from Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Reliance Foundation Young Champs. No one would have given these kids a chance against their PL counterparts. But to everyone’s surprise, they gave a fair fight and even won their matches against Southampton. The most amazing accomplishment, Reliance Foundation Young Champs beating United U-14 on the last day. No better way to cap off the tournament. Chelsea U-14 were the ultimate winners but it gives a ton of hope to the youngsters and a lot of positives to take away at the end of the day.
ISL at the start wasn’t recognised by the international governing bodies. Both AFC and FIFA treated it as a tournament and didn’t accredit it as an official league. Now, this is important as it closes the doors of bigger opportunities for the teams. You might haven’t heard much but there’s an Asian version of UEFA Champions League and Europa cup known as AFC Champions League and AFC Cup. Ever wonder where the clubs pop up from to participate in FIFA Club World Cup. In 2017, FIFA and AFC recognised ISL which gave an opportunity for teams to participate in AFC Cup and AFC Champions League. A great thing to put Indian football on the world map.
Why is it that ISL is such an important landmark in Indian sports history? Because it solves the grassroots problem for football in India in multiple aspects. It was a treacherous route to get to play alongside the biggest names in the game. ISL has made it easier by making India a lucrative place for giants in the business similar to MLS, China or the Middle East. We lacked infrastructure and facilities to facilitate the growth of an aspiring young player. Foundation of the youth academy, establishing world-class stadiums and bringing experienced coaching has tried to nip this problem in its buds. Lack of monetary reward has made players opt for a different living in the past. Media coverage, recognition by the governing bodies at the international level and investment by the conglomerates and bigger teams have made it possible to achieve fame and glory. Improving the collective standard of the game and the players will also help us realise a coveted dream. Possibility of Indian national team qualifying for the World Cup and India as a nation hosting the event as well.
Over the years, players and fans alike have idolized international legends. We have had posters in our bedroom of Ronaldo, Messi, Zidane, Ronaldinho and countless other stars. We possibly remember all of their greatest moments and records and can recall it within seconds. So tell me, who is the second-highest goalscorer for their nation amongst the active payers? Let me help you, it’s none other than Sunil Chhetri. It’s not your fault if you do not remember this but we have every chance to witness the rise of the next Chhetri. I understand it is hard to switch channels when we have a Premier League match televised at the same time as ISL. But trust me, try it once. You will surely not regret it. For what it’s worth, we definitely are on the track to produce the future poster stars of the world.
7th season is underway and do not forget to catch all the action on Star Sports/Hotstar.