Press Release

The good and bad: India's football future following the ISL

23 December 2014

 Atletico de Kolkata were crowned the inaugural champions of the Indian Super League following a 1-0 victory over Kerala Blasters in Mumbai on Saturday night. The ten-week football festival was designed to initiate a new dawn for the game in India, where cricket is the number one sport.

Here's a look at the future of football in India, with five good and five bad points to come from the tournament.
There's an appetite for football in India
In total, 1.5 million people attended the 61 matches that made up the ISL tournament, with an average attendance of around 25,000. Television viewing figures were also impressive with more than 400 million people tuning in. Some teams such as Kerala Blasters, FC Goa and Atletico de Kolkata played virtually all their home matches in sell-out stadiums. The ISL also showed that giving football an Indian edge, with the involvement of home-grown players and Bollywood superstars, is an effective way to sell the game to its people. More people in India watched the tournament's opening week on television (170.2 million) than they did the first week of the 2014 Brazil World Cup (87.6 million). Football needs fans and India certainly has them.
India has a pool of young talent
Some of the best performances among the Indian players came from the country's youngsters. The likes of Kerala Blasters' Sandesh Jhingan, Romeo Fernandes of FC Goa and Atletico de Kolkata's Baljit Sahni were just some of the Indian footballers who caught the eye. The big question is how this crop of youngsters will perform when they return to playing in all-Indian sides.
Investment is on the way
While the ISL may have highlighted the poor football infrastructure in India and the lack of development programmes, change is in the pipeline. Many of the tournament's leading clubs are in partnership with some of European football's biggest names to inject new life into grassroots Indian football. ISL winners Atletico de Kolkata are partly owned by Atletico Madrid, who are building an academy in Kolkata and will implement development programmes. Chennaiyin FC are affiliated to Inter Milan, who are also building an academy in the city.
Foreign players pulled their weight
One of the big concerns was the foreign star names were only heading to the ISL for one final pay day. While Alessandro Del Piero disappointed, most of the other foreigners playing in the tournament did not.. Their commitment and professionalism helped to raise the level of football and make for some exciting matches. Special mention must go to Kerala Blasters' striker and captain Ian Hume who was crowned player of the tournament, despite suffering heartbreak in the final. His full-blooded performances and five goals were an inspiration to watch and earned him cult status among the Blasters fans.
Next year set to get better
Brace yourself for a bigger and perhaps better ISL in 2015. Plans are being considered to make it a 10-team tournament. Organisers have also revealed that teams will be able to directly sign domestic and foreign players as opposed to securing them through a central draft system as happened for this year's ISL. That should result in clubs being able to go out and sign more high profile foreign players. A number of ISL clubs have already said that they will also try to secure the services of younger foreign players as opposed to the veterans who turned out for them this year. Also expect more emerging players from the likes of Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Fiorentina, who are all affiliated with ISL clubs and will be keen for their youngsters to get some exposure in India.
But it's not all good news. Here's five things India must get right ...
Atletico de Kolkata celebrated winning the ISL on Saturday but India still has a long way to go to develop the sport across the country.
India's national team is a joke
In all the hullabaloo surrounding the ISL, a devastating development with the Indian game went by almost unnoticed. At the start of the tournament on October 12, India were a lowly 158th in the FIFA rankings. By its end on December 20, they had plunged to 171st -- just one above their lowest position ever. The national team is in disarray and critics claim that the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF), the game's governing body in the country, is ignoring it at the expense of the high profile and lucrative ISL. If football is to take hold on the country then putting the national team on the right track has to be one of the priorities.
Football infrastructure is poor
While the ISL's illustrious foreign names enjoyed the experience of playing in the country, concerns have been raised over a number of areas such as quality of pitches, lack of punctuality over training times and the dearth of coaches and training facilities. Footballers don't want to be waiting around in a hotel lobby for transport that is running late or for a training pitch to be found, which has often been the case in the ISL. Former England goalkeeper and Kerala Blasters player coach David James said ahead of Saturday's final: "Four, maybe five sides were playing on cricket pitches.
The coaching is another issue. They have got to do some heavy investment, the infrastructure is near on non-existent. Training facilities are very hard to come by. There is a severe lack of qualified coaches in India."
Focus on the north
If football is to become a truly national game in India then it has to spread beyond its traditional bastions in the south and east of the country. The ISL merely reinforced what many already know; that football is a regional game in India. All four semifinalists -- Chennaiyin FC, Kerala Blasters, Atletico de Kolkata and FC Goa -- came from parts of the country where football is traditionally been played.
Only Delhi Dynamos came from one of India's non-footballing areas and of the eight teams that took part in the tournament, they had the worst attendances despite having Alessandro Del Piero as their marquee player. Delhi's last home match in the 60,000 capacity Jawaharlal Nehru stadium was watched by a crowd of just over 3,000. Despite enjoying unprecedented national attention, the ISL did not capture the imagination of the Indian public in the north as it did in other parts of the country; something ISL organisers will have to address for next year's tournament.
ISL television coverage needs sorting out
Broadcasting revenue drives sport and the ISL is no different. Advertisers and sponsors have been licking their lips at the huge viewing figures the ISL has attracted but sadly, there were some aspects of the match day coverage that were infuriating to watch. Pundits' knowledge of the game was always poor, despite their best efforts to make out that they knew what they were talking about. The presenters always had a tendency to over-hype the occasion, best exhibited when one of them compared the atmosphere for the ISL final to a World Cup final.
Unrealistic expectations
The success of the ISL has led to some wild and preposterous claims about the future prospects for Indian football, ranging from staging the World Cup within the next 20 years to the national team being one of the world's leading football nations. Nothing could be further from the truth; the AIFF has a massive job on its hands. Grassroots football is in a dilapidated state, suffering from chronic under investment while the I League, India's premier domestic competition, barely gets any national recognition with the standard below that of any of Europe's bottom tier professional leagues.
While the ISL has been positive for the game, Indian football fans need a reality check. The country's football authorities first have to get the basics right and that is going to take a long time. Never mind becoming a global football force, just getting the national team into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings and adequate facilities and coaches would be a good start. That is Indian football's real challenge.
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