The jury may still be out on the impact of Indian Super League (ISL) on Indian football, but a research by a news-tracking agency reveals some fascinating figures. The agency monitored the mentions of key words ‘I-League’ and ‘Indian football’ for a week, and till Sunday, it generated roughly 60 results per search.
On Monday, though, the results were overwhelming. A simple search for the same key words resulted in close to 650 results worldwide. If there were any doubts over the curiosity generated over the announcement made by ISL organisers IMG-Reliance on Sunday, this would lay it to rest.
IMG-R revealed a star-studded line-up including Sourav Ganguly, Atletico Madrid, Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan and Ranbir Kapoor, among others, as the team owners for football’s IPL avatar. And it is believed the association of some of the biggest names from the sport, cinema and corporate world for the proposed two-month league will give a much-needed push to the game, which had stagnated in the last few years.
There are reasons to feel optimistic. The league will take football to venues which have not been explored before. One of the major flaws of the I-League, as well as the erstwhile National Football League, is that it is not a pan-India league.
The participation of clubs has been restricted mainly to a few cities — Goa, Kolkata, Mumbai, and more recently from Shillong, Pune and Bangalore. The teams from North have remained absent ever since JCT shut shop and none from South have been permanent fixtures in the I-League. ISL includes team from Delhi, Guwahati and Kochi — three major centres that have been conspicuous by their absence at national level.
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IMG-R’s immediate step ahead of the player drafts would be to spruce up the infrastructure. They had hired the services of Gregory Gillin, former Wembley stadium pitch expert, to recce the stadiums across the country. Fields will be relaid, drainage system will be reviewed and seating facilities will be improved at all the venues.
IMG-R have made lofty claims regarding infrastructure and grassroot development. How much they fulfill remains to be seen. “Training centres will also be established in all the host cities. We currently have zero infrastructure but when we are calling some of the best players and coaches to the country, we cannot have shoddy facilities,” an IMG-R official said.
Of course, a lot will also depend on the quality of the players who will be a part of the draft. Each team will consist of 22 players out of which 10 will be foreigners. Considering that most of the leagues around the world will be underway in September, the organisers may be forced to compromise on the standard of the 80 internationals needed for the tournament.
The participation of Indian players, too, is still unclear. The clubs said they will meet soon to take a final call despite earlier assurances that they will release the players. Renedy Singh, who has already committed to ISL, is not worried. “The clubs and IMG-R have sorted out their differences and I don’t think there will be any issues with regards to releasing the players. There is always apprehension when a new venture is undertaken,” Singh, president of Football Players Association of India, said.
The I-League clubs, nevertheless, seem to be shaking in their boots. Despite the owners of Dempo and Shillong Lajong winning bids to own teams from Goa and Guwahati respectively, there is a growing sense of insecurity among the clubs, who believe the country’s premier domestic competition will die a slow death in course of time.
But AIFF senior vice president Subrata Dutta said their fears were not justified. “We have said time and again that I-League will remain our main tournament. Our teams for AFC Champions League and Asian Cup will qualify from I-League. There is no need to worry about it, though,” Dutta insisted.
No international friendlies?
The ISL may be seen as a game-changer for Indian football but it is likely that the national team may not play any international friendly. Because of the WC in June-July, FIFA have increased the number of dates for friendly matches and the only dates available this year clash with the ISL.
FIFA have given slots from September 1 to 9, October 6 to 14 and November 10 to 18 for the national associations to conduct friendly matches. ISL runs from September to November. International friendlies are essential for a team to move up the world rankings. India are currently languishing at 145th place.
India coach Wim Koevermans said there was uncertainty over India’s international commitments this year. “The first opportunity for the national team to play is in September. But we have to see if the I-League clubs start some sort of pre-season before that because it might affect preparations for the national team. The ISL also begins in September. ”
AIFF senior vice-president Subrata Dutta said: “We’ll have to see how many national team players are a part of the ISL. We will have to figure it out once we discuss the plans with national coach. It’s too early to comment,” Dutta said.