‘Unpredictable’ is the first word that comes to mind whenever one sets out to describe the third edition of the Indian Super League. It didn’t matter whether the two teams facing off on the pitch were from two different halves of the table. There, in those 90 minutes, the draw was always an open one.
Another word can be used to describe ISL 2016 which starts with the same two alphabets as the previous one – ‘Unruly.’ While the first adjective is great for any sports league, the second one isn’t. It was the word that was associated with England’s erstwhile Football League and that had led to the country’s clubs being disallowed from participating in any European competitions. It had also resulted in the popularity of English football within the country itself waning. It forced England to form a league where the stakes were higher and discipline stricter and thus, the Premier League was born in 1993.
The ISL is sold as India’s Premier League albeit on a shorter window. It is supposed to do what the I-League could never achieve – increase the popularity of domestic football in a country that has often been described as the ‘sleeping giants’ of the sport.
It is hence only fair to expect it to be a step above the I-League in the finer aspects of the game. The most glaring feature of most ISL matches this season has been the players vehemently arguing with the referee about any big decisions.
The referees have made a few questionable decisions this season, such as Aaron Hughes being given a yellow card for time wasting in the 26th minute of the match. At the same time, how a player reacts to it is a reflection on his professionalism. Hughes, in that case, did nothing more than raise his hands in disbelief and moved on. In the other semi final fixture, Mumbai City’s marquee Diego Forlan was sent off for a rash, almost silly challenge on Jewel Raja. He already was on a yellow, knew straightaway that his participation in the semi final was over and walked off without any protest. Worth pointing out is that he was given a second yellow for the cynical challenge and not a straight red card.
In another incident, Chennaiyin FC’s Richarlyson while playing against Kerala Blasters in one of the league matches, was sent off for a rash challenge minutes after receiving his first yellow. Richarlyson is a player who had a history of recklesness on the pitch while he was playing for Sao Paulo in Brazil and lived up to his reputation. It took a lot of convincing to pull the Brazilian midfielder off the pitch.
He was the second Chennaiyin player to be sent off in that match after which Kerala scored twice to seal victory. The referee had to be escorted off the field by security officials in the stadium due to the reaction of the Chennaiyin FC players after the full time whistle. This, alongwith the ugly brawl that came at the end of the second leg of the semi finals between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City are the only times when the AIFF decided to fine the teams.
But the fact remains that the way players have argued with the referees this season in the ISL would be seen as a reason to be sent off or at least get a booking in many European leagues. Josu had to be taken off the pitch because of his inability to remain calm in the first half of the semi finals first leg between Kerala Blasters and Delhi Dynamos. In situations like these, the players need to know that their remaining calm and accepting the referee’s decision is just as important as playing well for the team.
Football is a sport that has the ability to both unite and divide. It is a sport that, when mixed with emotions like anger and a general sense of injustice, can cause problems in ways that the authorities won’t be able to control. If one thinks that it is impossible for the sport to generate emotions like that in India, you only need to look eastwards and read the stories that come out of Kolkata every time Mohun Bagan and East Bengal lock horns.
While it is nearly impossible to keep a match incident-free, it is upon the players to understand their responsibility as not just members of the team but also as individuals who set examples of how the game is supposed to be played. At the same time, it must be pointed out that referees and ISL officials have to clamp down harder on poor discipline.