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ISL season preview: A stepping stone and a pit stop

League is a platform to revive their flagging careers and for those who await greener pastures

ISL trophyPhoto: ISL/Twitter

At the start of 2022, Marco Balbul wouldn’t have imagined the situation he finds himself in today.

After 20 years of coaching at the top level, the former Israel international seemed to have landed his dream job in February when he was handed over the reins of his country’s national team. It didn’t take long for the dream to unravel. A month after his appointment, Balbul was sacked. He hadn’t even managed Israel in a single game – they were due to play Germany and Poland a week after he was shown the door.

But disagreements with the national team general manager and one of Israel’s finest players, Yossi Benayoun over selections sealed his fate.


And so, the former Maccabi Haifa manager now finds himself far away from home – in Guwahati, in charge of NorthEast United in the Indian Super League (ISL), which meanders into a new season on Friday.

Stories like Balbul’s – of players and managers seeking to revive their stagnant or flagging careers – are rife in the ISL. The league, which set out to reinvent Indian football, has become sort of a pit-stop or a bridge for professionals looking for bigger, better gigs. Alberto Roca, the former Bengaluru manager who went on to become a part of Barcelona’s backroom staff, is one such example. Striker Adam Le Fondre, who returned to Sydney FC after a sublime season with Mumbai City, is another case in point.

This might not necessarily be a bad thing for the league – better to have players and managers wanting to prove a point instead of yesteryear heroes for whom the ISL is just a part of their retirement plans. And this has been apparent in the quality of the league. Although it does not directly reflect in the performances of the team, and despite the many imperfections, the ISL has gotten better year-on-year and the disparity among teams has reduced.


And that’s what will make Balbul’s new job challenging. At NorthEast, he will manage a team that has often punched above its weight but has been equally inconsistent – one season, they’ll play terrible and finish at the bottom or closer to it; the next, they’ll look invincible and be challenging for the top spot. Going by this trend, NorthEast, who finished 10th out of 11 teams, will be breathing down the necks of the heavyweights.

No established order

Then again, there is no established order in the ISL, which is into its ninth season.

The last four seasons have had four different teams who topped the league phase – Jamshedpur, Mumbai, Goa and Bengaluru. The top four, too, have had a good mix, with nine different teams finishing among the playoff spots. Unpredictability has been the league’s norm, partly also because of the restrictions under which the last two seasons were played.

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After two years in a bubble, the ISL will return to a home-and-away format, with fans expected to throb the stadiums. The scenes in Kerala tell the story – thousands in yellow flocking towards the stadium on the eve of Kerala Blasters’ season opener on Friday against East Bengal.

“We became used to bubbles,” Mumbai City manager Des Buckingham said on Thursday. “Now, we have got to get used to what football used to be like.”

For Buckingham’s Mumbai City – who became the first Indian club to win a match in the Asian Champions League – that would mean returning to the top four, for starters after missing out last season. Mumbai have been plagued by inconsistent performances but then again, the only team that can claim to be somewhat consistent is ATK Mohun Bagan, last season’s finalists who have reached the playoffs in three consecutive seasons.

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Bagan, however, have struggled in their pre-season – underlined by their shock loss to I-League side Rajasthan United in the Durand Cup – and have shown vulnerability in the defence, which will be led by Florentin Pogba, the brother of France and Juventus star Paul Pogba.

The ‘other’ Pogba

Like Balbul, Florentin, too, will be hoping that the ISL provides a new lease of life to his flagging career. When his brother Paul was completing his move from Manchester United to Juventus, Florentin – a 32-year-old centre-back who represents Guinea internationally – signed for Bagan from French second division side Sochaux.

Florentin was without a club for half-a-year after leaving MLS side Atalanta United at the start of 2020 before he re-signed for his old club, Sochaux. He had a year left in his contract with the French side before he chose to make a move to India, where Florentin will be among 66 foreign players – from Spain to Syria – spread across 11 teams.

Even though only four foreigners will be allowed to be a part of the starting 11, they will still be expected to largely dominate the proceedings. However, for the young Indian players the next six months will be a chance to show their levels and stake a claim for a spot in the squad for the Asian Cup, especially since national team coach Igor Stimac hasn’t shied away from taking risks and blooding fresh faces in the team.


From that point of view, there’ll be considerable focus on Bengaluru FC, who employ some of the key national team members – be it goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, defender Sandesh Jhingan who joined them in the off-season, midfielder Suresh Wangjam or forwards Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan.

The presence of all these national team stars, coupled with aggressive activity in the transfer market, where they signed one of the finest foreign players in the league, Fiji’s Roy Krishna, will make the team coached by former Leeds United manager Simon Grayson one of the top contenders.

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The fact that Bengaluru will return to their home ground, they fondly call it the Fortress given that they’ve been hard to beat there, will only make them stronger. Their title credentials, though, will be tested on Saturday when Balbul and his NorthEast United side come calling.

Not the scenario Balbul – who started the year plotting to take on Germany while managing Israel – would have imagined at the start of the year.

Matchday 1 fixtures

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Friday: Kerala Blasters vs East Bengal
Saturday: Bengaluru vs NorthEast United
Sunday: Hyderabad vs Mumbai City
Monday: ATK Mohun Bagan vs Chennaiyin
Tuesday: Jamshedpur vs Odisha
All matches live on Star Sports Network, 7.30pm onwards

First published on: 06-10-2022 at 11:20:08 pm
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