The birth of a footballing nation! That was what the Indian Super League was styling itself as. While concurring with that claim would be akin to insulting the more than century-old history that Indian football can boast of, the inaugural edition of the ISL has been a rebirth of sorts for the beautiful game in a cricket-crazy country.
The dust is still settling down at the DY Patil Stadium after the final between Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters FC, but people are already looking to the future. There is talk of a possible, yet seemingly impractical, merger between the ISL and the I-League in the longer term. Teams have already begun analyzing the lessons learnt and there is talk of bringing in even better players than what the inaugural season saw. Positivity, it can safely be said, is in the air!
Of all the positives that can be taken from the past two months, the way the league, and along with it the game, has been accepted by the country’s football fans has to be the biggest. A generation of football fanatics, brought up on the exploits of Manchester United and Real Madrid, found something to root for on home soil. The unexpectedly big crowds in Kochi and Chennai are proof of that.
“Without doubt, the involvement of fans has been the single biggest gain from the ISL. Before, we had fans turn up for some games in some centres. But the hype that the ISL generated has brought people from all walks of life to the stadium,” says Baichung Bhutia, one of the best ever footballers India has produced.
It is exactly this hype that ISL officials will have to work hard to recreate next year. By the time Season 2 comes rolling, the novelty factor will have worn off. “I think it will be done. The way the league has been organized was very good this year, and it will probably be better the second time. They have shown that they know how to bring the fans in. I also expect better players to come in next year,” says former Indian skipper Jo Paul Anchery.
The standard of football, which was excellent in the beginning, plateaued out towards the end with a number of goalless draws. Anchery believes that expanding the calendar can solve this next year. “They had four days before every game, which is nowhere near enough to recover. Naturally, this led to a lot of tired legs in the end. If they can expand the league beyond the two-month period in which it was played now, that will help keep up the standard of football,” he believes.
Another challenge the next year will pose is that the tournament is likely to clash with India’s World Cup qualifiers. While nobody expects India to go all the way, the revamped qualification structure means that India has a good shot at qualifying for the Asia Cup by finishing amongst the top 24 teams in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers.
ISL authorities will have to ensure that they assist rather than hamper this bid.