Indian Super League and I-League will witness the two top divisions running alongside over the course of next few months. On Friday, Indian football will witness the kick-off of one of those. Both will have 10 teams and some will even share stadiums. The matches will be spaced out such that the most matches will be played over the weekends and will be shown live by the same broadcaster. The cap on foreigners in the starting XI, too, has been kept the same and there is a continental slot available to each champion.
Though AIFF insists that the two leagues are equally important, it sounds like a hollow claim. The Indian Super League is clearly the chosen one, considering the subtle moves that undermine the I-League – like 40 out of its 91 matches, including the first Kolkata derby, have a 2pm kickoff compared to all ISL games getting prime-time slots. The other signs are more straightforward to spot – like all top Indian players choosing the ISL and the highest-paid player in the ISL, Bengaluru FC’s Venezuelan striker Miku (Rs 3.22 crore) getting almost a crore more than I-League’s most expensive player, Mohun Bagan’s Sony Norde (Rs 2.5 crore).
All these factors indicate that for all practical purposes, the ISL has become the country’s main league. The AFC Cup playoff slot for the winners has given the league a validity that was lacking earlier.
Till last season, the teams assembled just a fortnight before the season, travelled more than they trained and the matches lacked intensity. The focus remained on star owners in the stands rather than the footballers on the field. By conducting the two leagues simultaneously, the AIFF has now given a specific structure to the domestic calendar. Till last year, the India players ended up with around 55 matches each per season, starting with the I-League followed by ISL, AFC Cup and Federation Cup along with national team commitments in between. The haphazard scheduling gave little time for recovery, severely impacting the overall quality.
This season, that bit seems to be taken care of. The ISL has a four-month window this season, almost double compared to the previous editions. This means a minimum of a four-day gap between matches for each team, with no games scheduled on Mondays and Tuesdays. ISL, this season, isn’t banking on high-profile retired stars to attract attention. There’re a few stray cases like Robbie Keane. ATK signed the former Republic of Ireland star for Rs 2.58 crore but the 37-year-old picked up a knock during pre-season and will miss Friday’s season-opener against Kerala Blasters, who have former Manchester United stars Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown. By and large, though, the teams have avoided the temptation to sign marquee players just for the sake of it. There have been some smart buys instead. Miku – who has more than 100 appearances in La Liga — for Bengaluru, Mumbai City’s Cameroonian midfielder Achille Emana and FC Goa’s Bruno Pinheiro being cases in point.
One of the biggest changes this season is in the composition of playing XI. Unlike the past, the teams will need to have more Indian players (minimum 6) on the field. While it may result in more local players getting opportunities, there is a possibility they might be overlooked for foreigners for key positions that form the spine of a team – strikers, central midfielders and centre-backs.
Most teams have made their recruitments accordingly. Defending champions ATK, now coached by Teddy Sheringham, will once again start as favourites along with their Friday’s opponents Kerala Blasters, who will be managed by Rene Meulensteen, who was Alex Ferguson’s right-hand man at Manchester United. Mumbai City and FC Goa, too, have enough quality to challenge for the title along with Bengaluru FC, who have one of the strongest squads on paper. During the off-season, Bengaluru were the first I-League club to jump ship, followed by a mass exodus by the players. It elevated the ISL’s status as the de facto premier league of the country.
Making a splash
Highest paid player:
Rs 3.22 cr
The 32-year-old Venezuelan has recently played for Real Vallecano and will be Bengaluru’s main man up front. The striker has more than 100 appearances in La Liga, has played for clubs like Getafe and Valencia apart from playing for Celtic. His strike-partner Sunil Chhetri is the highest-paid among the Indians, pocketing approximately Rs 1.5crore.
While the teams have resisted the temptation of signing marquee players, they have done well in attracting some proven coaches. Kerala Blasters’ Rene Meulensteen is among the high-profile names, helping Manchester United win Premier League titles in 2008-09, 2010-11 and 2012-13 as the first team coach of the team managed by Alex Ferguson. Steve Coppell (Jamshedpur), Alberto Roca (Bengaluru), Miguel Portugal (Delhi), Antonio Habas (Pune) and Alex Guimaraes (Mumbai) have high pedigree. How Teddy Sheringham fares for Kolkata will also be keenly observed.
The biggest difference is the teams will be competing for the AFC Cup slot, which is reserved for the champions. That adds an element of seriousness to the tournament that lacked intensity previously. Addition of two more teams – Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC – takes the total to 10 and the league will now be played over four months. Another change is in the composition of starting XI, where a minimum of six Indians have been made mandatory.
Kerala Blasters vs ATK: Live on Star Sports 2/Star Sports 1 Hindi