ISL 2017: Knocking on the pivotal years of Indian football
No! This is not about India successfully hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup but it’s actually about what is going to happen, post that. The struggle that has been for the game in the country is a concept, foreign to none. Inadequate infrastructure, lackluster performances, dismal crowd count, financial disabilities, the list goes on. The state of the game has been much like a child who has a lot of talent but has a disappointing overall performance. And much like most children in the country, this child requires some beating to get his priorities set.
After years of planning, it finally feels as if India has been able to get a formalized football structure, something which can be made concrete if worked upon very closely. The Indian Super League (ISL), a franchise based system, has brought in a fresh air of hope for the governing body of football in the country. The injection of money to the game has led to a slight shift of ownership which was earlier concentrated to legacy-based governing bodies, clubs which had existed for over 50-60 years, They provided little tangibility for the refurbishing of the game, which now, is looking possible.
Since its inception in 2014, the infrastructure, style of play, revenue and crowd engagement have improved. Players like Robert Piers, Forlan, Luis Garcia, Florent Malouda upon many others have graced the Indian soil. Even Indian players like Jeje, Sunil Chettri and Sandesh Jhingan have become household names, which is a positive sign. But these are just small aspects of the bigger picture that lies ahead.
In the past three seasons, the purpose of the ISL was not clear. It hardly existed for 1/4th of the year and as Kerela Blasters FC manager Steve Coppell said, “Usually it takes 10-12 games to get going. By that time here, the league games are over."
Even the I-league, which was the premier league of the country till last season existed only for 5 months, whereas the AFC requires domestic leagues to be played for at least 8-10 months. Also, the number of foreign players in the starting XI was more than five, which was again doing less good for the domestic players.
But this season will start on a fairly different note as some of the important suggestions are to be implemented. Ten teams have been added, which mean 34 more matches in the calendar. This will give the teams to set in and evaluate their performance throughout the tournament.
A five-month long league will also give time between the matches to recover and to settle down. Also, a maximum number of five foreign players per match will mean that more Indian players will get the first-team experience.
And to top it all, ISL teams now fight for a spot in the AFC Cup, which sort of gives the top teams a direction and goal worthy to fight for.
This is a very important experimental phase for the game in the country as along with the changes in the structure, it would be interesting to see how fans perceive the change. If the system goes successfully, we might get to see a merger of I-league and ISL in the next couple of years. If that happens the fans of legacy football vs fans of franchise football which will make the matters even more interesting, serving a much greater purpose.
Either way, the outcome of this tournament hopefully will open up gates for better things to come for the game in the country.