This segment had earlier discussed the potential. Two-and-a-half months down the line, it’s celebrating the success. ‘Times they are a-changin’ in Indian football with the Indian Super League (ISL) ushering in the transformation.
“Give life to the newborn,” said Mamata Banerjee, hailing Atletico de Kolkata’s title triumph and urging the ISL champions to take the game to the grassroots. She wants to see “a new Maradona or Messi” from her state. Grand expectations which at the moment appears to be a very long haul. But the West Bengal chief minister would be happy to know that the newborn is bubbling with life.
Indeed, it has been a fabulous start. With an average attendance of 24,357, ISL is already the fourth most popular league in the world—falling behind only to Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga. The tournament has attracted more people to the terraces than Italy’s Serie A. Amazing!
Mumbai, a neutral venue, played host to the final between Atletico Kolkata and Kerala Blasters. More than 35,000 fans turned up at the DY Patil Stadium. Mohammad Rafique’s ‘Fergie time’ (or shall we say Lopez Habas time) winner provided a fitting climax to a remarkable first season. Time to build on the initial success.
“Very happy that Atletico Kolkata lifted the trophy. But in the end, football was the biggest winner,” said the franchise co-owner Sourav Ganguly. All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel concurred: “This is a football revolution. A dynamic change is taking place…” The “sleeping giant” is waking up from its slumber. It needs the right direction.
Football has always been high on the sporting agenda for the Indian fans. But with the national team virtually non-existent—ranked 171 in the world—they became couch potatoes, watching their favourite Premier League sides on telly and throwing tantrums on social media.
ISL provided them with an opportunity to drop in at the match venues and have a first-hand look at some of the big names in world football.
We saw some high quality stuff and heart-stopping moments on the pitch. Here’s a list of the top performers…
Goalkeepers: Jan Seda (FC Goa), TP Rehenesh (NorthEast United FC) and Sandip Nandy (Kerala Blasters). David James, too, rolled back the years before getting injured. A fit James would have comfortably saved Rafique’s header.
Defenders: Gregory Arnolin (FC Goa), Bernard Mendy (Chennaiyin FC), Arnab Mondal (Atletico de Kolkata), Josemi (Atletico de Kolkata), Sandesh Jhingan (Kerala Blasters) and Cedric Hengbart (Kerala Blasters).
Midfielders: Elano Blumer (Chennaiyin FC), Andre Santos (FC Goa), Romeo Fernandes (FC Goa) and Bruno Pelissari (Chennaiyin FC). Atletico de Kolkata’s Luis Garcia, also, played well before pulling his hammy.
Forwards: Gustavo Dos Santos (Delhi Dynamos), Iain Hume (Kerala Blasters), John Stiven Mendoza Valencia (Chennaiyin FC), Jeje Lalpekhlua (Chennaiyin FC) and Miroslav Slepicka (FC Goa).
Most of the marquee players turned out to be flops. Their presence, however, added to the tournament’s brand value. James begged to differ.
“Short of spending an absolute fortune to get younger marquee players, you had to go down the road of getting household names who were a little later on in their years, if not at the end of their careers in some cases,” the 44-year-old Kerala Blasters coach-cum-keeper told BBC.
True, but it had to be like that only. Did James expect Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard to come over! The team owners should be credited for bringing in the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka.
Of course, the franchises need to be judicious about recruiting foreign players next season. Star attractions notwithstanding, there were far too many passengers this term. Teams will learn from their mistakes. James also spoke about the lack of infrastructure. “They’ve got to do some heavy investment, the infrastructure is near on non-existent… Training facilities are very, very hard to come by.” This is an area of concern. But at least some progress has been made.
Stadiums were decked up, dressing-rooms received fresh coats of paints and spectators had been provided with better seating arrangements. Things will improve further with time.
Don’t forget, this is just the beginning. ISL has already made its presence felt. The challenge now would be to reach the next level. To start with, the tournament needs a bigger window and this can only happen if it is integrated with the I-League. ISL’s popularity will increase manifold if Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are added to its roster.
AIFF has to be proactive. For so long, they have been waiting and watching from the sidelines. They need to hasten the process to incorporate all major clubs into ISL’s ambit. This should be the country’s main football event. As for Bagan and East Bengal, they’ve to change rapidly as well. To paraphrase Fifa president Sepp Blatter, infrastructure and concept wise, they still belong to the past, past century. An upgrade failure will see them fall by the wayside.
Finally, youth development. Great to see all eight ISL teams are serious about this. Atletico Kolkata have already decided to set up an academy. Others are expected to follow suit. “We’ve to bring this country of one billion within two goal posts,” says an ad campaign on telly. The journey has begun in the right earnest, but there’s a long road ahead. Indian football can’t afford to falter.