The collective frown on the faces of the glitterati present in the stadium’s VIP box told the true story. The match was just 75 seconds old but it had already seen three ugly fouls, one yellow card and plenty of skirmishes between the two sets of players.
The trend continued for rest of the first half between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday, the opening day of the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL). There were more bones crushed than passes made, leading to scrappy, not symphonic, football. And the naysayers were already smacking their lips — all the glamour and show-business was okay, but where was the quality football that was promised?
Yes, it was only the first match and it wasn’t entirely bereft of high calibre stuff. Luis Garcia’s beautifully waited pass to Baljit Sahni in the first half was a throwback to his Liverpool days. Fikru Teferra’s unique celebration after scoring the first goal of the league was one for the highlights reel; former Real Madrid and Valladolid striker Borja Fernandez’s curling shot from the outside of the boot was one of the best goals the Salt Lake has witnessed; and Andre Moritz’s darting run through the middle after coming on in the second half too oozed class.
But such moments were rare in a match that otherwise cried for quality. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. It’s a common phenomenon that has dogged the IPLisation of other sports. Even in the Hockey India League, the teams were guilty of dishing out substandard quality in the opening week of its inaugural season.
Then, the teams often looked disjointed and lacked cohesion, but got better as the days wore on. But unlike the ISL, HIL did not face competition from rival hockey leagues around the world. The ISL, on the other hand, is jostling for space with top-quality European football. An Indian viewer is likely to be less patient with football than hockey, simply because of the better options that are at his disposal.
The gulf of class
But there’s a more serious issue that the ISL will face in the coming days. The gulf of class between the Indians and the rest in hockey is not as stark as in football. Sunday’s match proved – if at all it was warranted — that world football’s ageing A-listers and beleaguered B-listers are still better than their Indian counterparts who are at the peak of their careers.
Not just technically and physically, but also in understanding of match situations and running off the ball. It makes you realise just why the organisers gave the teams an option of fielding more foreign players (six) in the starting XI than the Indians. The difference was evident on occasions more than once.
Sahni’s inability to score the opening goal was a case in point. The striker, who also plays for East Bengal, completely failed to read Garcia’s pass in the first half. He was slow to react, which gave Mumbai ‘keeper Subrata Pal just enough time to smother his shot.
Mumbai’s two best Team India internationals, defender Raju Gaikwad and midfielder Lalrindika Ralte, too were consistently unable to anticipate their teammates’ moves. Like the other Indians, they panicked with the ball at their feet and in trying to rush things, constantly lost possession. Towards the end, left back Deepak Mandal was totally unaware of Fikru’s movement behind him, which resulted in Kolkata scoring their third goal.
Lest we forget that the teams have been training together for barely for a month, an incredibly short period to assemble a group of players from different cultures and styles and get them play like a team.
And the worn-out artificial turf at the Salt Lake didn’t help their cause either. Three years ago, it even made Lionel Messi look mediocre during Argentina’s friendly against Venezuela.
One can expect these flaws to be ironed out as the tournament progresses. But the first impression has left a lot to be desired.