The seventh season of the Indian Super League (ISL) will be unlike any of the previous editions of the tournament that have taken place. Being played behind closed doors in Goa across three venues, the league will commence on November 20th.
Despite the oddly unique circumstances it is being played in, there are a number of reasons why this will be the most unique edition of the ISL.
1. Improved Quality of Foreign Stars
The ISL is certainly not viewed as a retirement home for big stars to the extent that it was in the initial seasons. Sure, big names help draw eyeballs to the league, but it shows on the pitch when players aren't operating at the peak of their powers.
This season, however, has seen a significant talent drain from the A-League to the ISL. A combination of A-League clubs facing financial uncertainty, an introduction of a salary cap down under, and the ISL promising lucrative contracts has seen as many as 14 A-League players pen contracts with ISL clubs. These include Sydney FC and former Reading striker Adam le Fondre, Gary Hooper, and James Donachie among others.
Moreover, the average age of just the A-League stars joining the ISL is 28, and this is excluding last year's star performers such as Roy Krishna and Nerijus Valskis continuing in the league. In terms of foreign quality, this season promises to be the best yet, and it will only help with the football on the pitch.
2. Indian players with a point to prove
Let's not forget, as much as foreign names will contribute to the quality of the league, Indian players are also no longer merely bringing up the rear as happy participants. The most high profile transfer of the season was Sandesh Jhingan from Kerala Blasters to ATK Mohun Bagan, which should tell you a lot about how both the intrinsic and perceptive value of Indian footballers has changed.
The changing circumstances bring along their fair share of pressure, and season on season, Indian footballers are getting better at dealing with it. Young players like Lallianzuala Chhangte, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, and Shubham Sarangi all ended last season as integral members of their teams, and that is only expected to continue.
The postponment of India's World Cup qualifiers, which were to be held before the ISL, means that places in the squad will still be up for grabs. National team coach Igor Stimac will be keeping a close eye. Indian players have a point to prove this ISL season.
3. No fans in the stadiums
To make it very clear, not having fans in the stands this season is by no means an ideal situation. But oddly, without the pomp and fanfare of the spectators, this season may just force the players to be mentally keyed in more to the football side of things.
Not that increased concentration is a direct effect of not having fans in the stands. If other leagues that have started around the world are anything to go by, there are more goals being scored than ever before in every match and freak results seem to have become more common.
Does that mean defenders are snoozing? There is no empirical evidence to suggest that this is still clearly due to the absence of spectators. But don't be surprised if it's the same case in the ISL this season. Goals, goals, and more goals.
4. Less travel between the matches
Sure, the prospect of jet-setting from one corner of the country to another to play a match and getting a taste of the vast Indian landscape is appealing for all professional footballers. However, amid a tight schedule, it increasingly becomes very hard for rest, recovery, and training - all cornerstones of football.
With all matches being played exclusively in Goa this season, players will have more time to rest, recover and train between matches. This will be a consolation for teams who did not arrive in Goa at an ideal enough time to begin pre-season training, and will hope to make up for that time through the course of the season.
With more time spent on the training pitch, teams can be expected to be more in consonance with the thoughts and ideas of their managers in matches.
5. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal joining the ISL
Mohun Bagan has joined forces with ATK to become ATK Mohun Bagan, while East Bengal will be participating in the ISL as SC East Bengal.
These are big names with rich histories, and interest in the matches involving the two teams will be unlike anything seen in the ISL so far.
Compared to the first few seasons of the ISL, when there were many matches which were a hard-sell for broadcasters and spectators alike, the Kolkata Derby's move to the ISL will give fans and promoters alike a fixture to look forward to.
6. City Football Group forays into India
When news hit that the City Football Group had acquired a majority stake in Mumbai City FC, the eagerness to see how the team would line-up for the upcoming season was through the roof. Consistent with the City model, Mumbai City FC look like one of the strongest teams on paper, with big names signings such as Bartholomew Ogbeche and Adam le Fondre.
The CFG also bring a certain level of professionalism and experience of running a football franchise, which will only help on the pitch. Sure, their expertise is restricted to one team, but the influence that the CFG can have on the league as a whole cannot be underestimated.
7. Coaches with a point to prove
A good league needs good coaches. The ISL has plenty of those, both with no experience of the league and eager to show what they can bring to the table, and those knee deep in the workings of the league having spent time in India before.
Sergio Lobera will be eager to impress with his new club Mumbai City FC after an extremely successful spell with FC Goa. Owen Coyle joins Jamshedpur after turning Chennaiyin's fortunes midway through last season, and Carles Cuadrat will aim to take Bengaluru to the pinnacle of Indian football once again.
Meanwhile, the likes of Juan Ferrando at FC Goa and Robbie Fowler at East Bengal come with big reputations and a lot to prove. If every manager is able to execute their ideas and philosophies with the players they have at their disposal, it could make for one of the most exciting ISL seasons yet. The focus is sure to be on one thing only - football.Published 25 Oct 2020, 09:00 IST