The Indian Super League (ISL) is back for its sixth edition with glitter and gold, amidst all the hullabaloo involving the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and All India Football Federation (AIFF) regarding the domestic league structure. Despite the protests of I-League clubs, and the rebranding of franchises due to financial reasons, the top tier holds promise with the new season starting from October 20.
With Bengaluru FC winning their maiden ISL title last season through an extra-time Rahul Bheke winner, the pressure will be on The Blues. Whether it is the Reliance Sport-funded league, or the rebranded I-League, no team has ever successfully defended their title so far. Bengaluru FC did come close in the 2014/15 I-League season, but Mohun Bagan’s Bello Rasaq had other ideas on the final matchday.
The reigning champions have padded their ranks after the loss of Venezuelan Miku, with the signings of Indian winger Ashique Kuruniyan, Brazilian playmaker Raphael Augusto, and the former Osasuna striker Manuel Onwu. Despite being firm favourites, Carles Cuadrat’s side faces tough competition, with the runners-up FC Goa managing to retain the core of their squad.
Sergio Lobera-coached “Gaurs” have not added a single new foreigner to their roster and have retained all their players from last season, including defender Mourtada Fall, midfielder Ahmed Jahouh, and two-time Golden Boot winner Ferran Corominas. There’s also the presence of Brandon Fernandes, Mandar Rao Dessai, and Manvir Singh, all of whom can help take their team a step further.
The league’s goal tally of 254 last season is expected to go up with the arrival of Ghana international Asamoah Gyan at NorthEast United, which also has Robert Jarni as its new manager.
Kerala Blasters will be banking on former Highlanders pair of manager Eelco Schattorie and Nigerian forward Bartholomew Ogbeche, and also on Cameroon striker Raphaël Messi Bouli, who will look to link up with India’s Sahal Abdul Samad. Mumbai City FC’s Modou Sougou will also be expected to pick up from where he left off last season.
The teams will be highly motivated ahead of the season with the proposed roadmap to 2024/25 that will introduce the promotion-relegation system. Moreover, the winners of the ISL will get an AFC Champions League playoff spot from this season itself. However, there is still a question mark over how the league functions when it comes to finances, attendances, club stability, and homegrown talent.
Although the initial edition in 2014 broke viewership records – partly due to the involvement of marquee players like Alessandro del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Diego Forlan, Roberto Carlos, Marco Materazzi, Florent Malouda – the league has suffered.
Franchises like FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have been rebranded because of financial vulnerability. After being rebranded as Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC, they will continue to take part in the Major League Soccer-like competition, with the former playing its home games at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad, and the latter at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
Compounding on the bookkeeping headache, the in-stadia attendance has continued to plummet. Teams like Mumbai City FC average around 4,000 fans per match, which is just half the capacity of the Mumbai Football Arena. On the other hand, the issue of instability in retaining players and managers have led to varying degrees of inconsistency, and Chennaiyin is a prime example. After winning the title in 2018, the team finished at rock bottom in the previous edition with a league record-low nine points from 18 games.
Although the league was introduced amid talks of grassroots level development, there hasn’t been much improvement in that area. However, I-League clubs like Minerva Punjab have pocketed a title with a crop of talented Indians and a budget that is one-fiftieth that of an ISL franchise.
With a seven-month gap since Bengaluru FC lifted the title after beating FC Goa in Mumbai, Cuadrat spoke about a concern that has been raised by India manager Igor Stimac as well — that domestic football does not feature enough games.
“It is a strange situation when you are a professional that you cannot play for so much time. But it is the way it has been working in the country until now because of the calendar difficulties,” Cuadrat had said.
In a bold move to better the league and stick to its initial ideals, Martin Bain was appointed the chief executive officer of Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL) in the second week of October to right the wrongs. The Scotsman at the helm of the body that essentially runs ISL, has experience at the highest level, having gained experience at Rangers FC and Sunderland AFC and holding the position as the director of the Scottish Premier League.
Trying to find their own identity in the sixth season, ISL will kick off at Kochi on Sunday, with a Sandesh Jhingan-less Kerala Blasters taking on a revamped ATK, who have welcomed back their 2014 title-winning manager, Antonio Habas. With the safety net of no-relegation to be lifted in the future, this season promises to be more competitive, and hopefully, in due course, football will be reawakened from its long-lasting slumber in a land of diversity.