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ISL 2020-21: The ISL's evolution is a boon for Indian football, says Chennaiyin FC midfielder Anirudh Thapa

Anirudh Thapa is one of the key players in the Chennaiyin FC squad
Anirudh Thapa is one of the key players in the Chennaiyin FC squad
Modified 23 Sep 2020, 07:34 IST

Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC have won two titles in six years. The Marina Machans have been largely successful due to the settled core of Indian footballers over the years. Central midfielder Anirudh Thapa, who can also drop down as a defensive midfielder, is certainly one of the key players in Chennaiyin FC. Thapa will be taking on a bigger role in the midfield as Chennaiyin FC see a transition to an entirely new roster for the 2020-21 Indian Super League season.

In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Anirudh Thapa spoke about the I-League, the possible inclusion of East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan, the evolution of the ISL, roster changes in Chennaiyin FC, the club's fans, season plans and Uttarakhand football.

Thapa played at I-League club Minerva Punjab FC in the 2016-17 season on loan from Chennaiyin FC. He played 14 games for the Warriors and scored a goal. Minerva Punjab survived the relegation battle over Mumbai FC as the eventual champions of India finished 9th in their debut I-League season.

When asked about the differences between the organisation of the ISL and the I-League, Anirudh Thapa said:

"Since I just played a single season in the I-League, I do not have much to say on the basis of comparison between the two leagues. I-League has its own legacy while ISL has a larger viewership and fans. When I was at Minerva, it felt like home to me. Since, I studied in the St. Stephen’s Academy in Chandigarh for 5 years, I had friends and family in Chandigarh. It was not something different for me on the personal level. I knew most of the players and coaches too. Hence, I enjoyed playing in the I-League."

With the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) having floated tenders for an 11th Indian Super League team in the 2020-21 edition, the inclusion of East Bengal FC looks a few days away. The Red and Golds will join the newly merged entity ATK Mohun Bagan in the ISL.

When asked about the inclusion of the two Kolkata giants in the upcoming season, Anirudh Thapa said:

"The Derby will be a big factor. It will increase viewership. We will get the real hang of the situation only in the 2021-22 season. Since, the upcoming edition will be played behind closed doors in Goa, we will unfortunately not be able to experience the atmosphere of the two big clubs."

The Indian Super League has expanded to a six-month-long league from a two-to-three-month affair. The league also has two continental slots (AFC Champions League Group Stage and AFC Cup play-offs) and has witnessed a decrease in the number of foreigners over the years.

Anirudh Thapa expressed pleasure on the steady evolution of the league. He said:

"The League has changed a lot since its inception. It has become a longer league with more teams. Previously it was mostly played by the senior players, which has changed now. Lots of young players are coming up and playing in the Indian Super League. The intensity and temperament of the league has taken a jump over the last few seasons. The reduction in foreign players in the squad has also allowed younger players to get more game time on the pitch. The league is evolving which is great for Indian football."

Chennaiyin FC's new Romanian-Hungarian head coach Csaba Laszlo will replace outgoing English head coach Owen Coyle. The team has only interacted on a video conference, focussing on team introduction. The pre-season will start in October at Goa with the Indian roster. Anirudh Thapa said:

"We have had an introductory session on video conference. Since, football needs to be played on the field, we are looking forward to our preaseason in Goa. I am excited to play with the new signings under Lazlo."

We still have Lallianzuala Chhangte and Rafael Crivellaro upfront: Anirudh Thapa on the change in core Chennaiyin FC players

Anirudh Thapa also spoke about the player overhaul at Chennaiyin FC and heaped praise on Nerijus Valskis and Rafael Crivellaro.

Nerijus Valskis scored 15 goals for Chennaiyin FC in the 2019-20 edition and emerged as the ISL Golden Boot winner. Valskis combined with Rafael Crivellaro upfront and formed a lethal attacking duo. Their exploits were pivotal to the comeback trail of Chennaiyin FC where they qualified for the top four after being at the bottom of the standings for the majority of the league. With Valskis leaving for Jamshedpur FC, however, the two players are now separated.

When asked if the change in the core players upfront will affect the side's prospects in the 2020-21 season, Anirudh Thapa said:

"Players come and go. Rafael Crivellaro and Nerijus Valskis really combined and played great as a duo. They were really a great goalscoring unit. However, we are sure, new players with equal capabilities will arrive. We have a new coaching staff which will help us. Ofcourse, the team may take some time to settle down in the new season but we are confident. We will work hard in the preseason and get familiar with our teammates and playing style."
"We still have the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte and Rafael Crivellaro upfront, hence there is not a major change. Hence, I do not think there will be much problems. I agree that Crivellaro and Valskis complemented each other, but we will surely adapt to a new attacking unit in weeks. Departure from a football club is entirely a decision taken by the club and the player and we have to respect that."

Anirudh Thapa also praised Chennaiyin FC fans for their unparalleled support in the team's home games:

"Chennaiyin FC fans supported us even when we were not playing well. They came to the grounds, no matter what the result was. This shows their love for the team and the city. I am really thankful to them. I am glad that I am in one of the best football clubs in India with the best fanbase."

When asked about the possible reasons behind the lack of football clubs coming up in the National Leagues circuit from Uttarakhand, Anirudh Thapa focussed on the lack of tournaments and matches in the state. He said:

"When I was a young footballer for my school in Dehradun. There used to be lots of leagues and tournaments. We used to go and watch players perform. Over the years, those teams and players have vanished. Teams have shut down and leagues have stopped. Uttarakhand has lots of potential. There needs to be a proper league system like the Mizoram League and the Kolkata League. Presence of leagues provides a platform for players to perform."
"As you can see in Delhi, there is the Delhi league. This allows Delhi’s football players to play and get scouted to an I-League and ISL club. Leagues act as a platform for clubs as well. State and City Leagues pave the way for clubs to enter the Indian football league pyramid. There has to be more matches in Uttarakhand. The state has lots of players and coaches. A league system will solve most of the issues plaguing Uttarakhand football."

Anirudh Thapa is focusing on his present challenge as a young footballer and has set no long-term goals yet. He wants to learn and get better. He emphasised:

"I am trying to learn at this moment. I am trying to become a better footballer and a better human being. I am trying to enjoy every bit of football I play. The immediate aim is to win the ISL 2020-21 and overturn last season’s defeat in the final at Goa."
Anirudh Thapa with the ISL 2017-18 trophy.
Anirudh Thapa with the ISL 2017-18 trophy.

The interview concluded with Anirudh Thapa recalling the most memorable moments in his playing career so far:

"There are many memorable moments. Coming from the bottom to win the league with Chennaiyin FC against Bengaluru FC in Bengaluru is one of my favourite career moment. Wearing the National Team jersey for the first time is an unforgettable experience. The goal I scored against Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 is also a great memory. I also have fond memories of playing in school. All these moments bring a smile on my face."
Published 23 Sep 2020, 07:34 IST
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