When Mohun Bagan Super Giant defender Subhashish Bose said that their team’s first defender is the striker, he was encapsulating one of the key aspects of modern football. It’s not about positions or roles—it’s about the collective.
Bose’s comment, at a recent Indian Super League (ISL) media event in Kolkata, also captures the changes and progress in Indian football, propelled by the ISL. As the league begins its 10th edition on Thursday, with a match between Kerala Blasters FC and Bengaluru FC in Kochi, there is much that the ISL has achieved and has still to accomplish.
“Where the league was in terms of length—three to four months—to where it is now—eight to nine months… Some of our players had a 11-month season last year,” said Des Buckingham, the Mumbai City FC coach. “It gives more opportunities for games, it gives more opportunities to train. It’s not just on the pitch, all this stuff around it, the analysis, the medical work, that allows these players to develop themselves in a comparable way to their counterparts in Asia.”
Some numbers back these achievements of the ISL—in popularity and as a contributor to Indian football. When the first edition of the league was played, starting October 2014, India’s world ranking in the Fifa list was 171. This July, the team was ranked 99, albeit India has been hovering around the 100-mark since 2017. The ISL featured in the top 10 searches on Google in India and sixth in sports—the second among Indian sports leagues last year, according to Google Trends data.
“There’s always competition for places, a place to grow and develop, deal with the demands of playing in this fantastic league, because the league is getting better every year,” said Owen Coyle, the Chennaiyin FC coach. “I think the Indian players are getting better. That’s kind of your testimony when you look at the national team, because that’s improving. It goes hand in hand—the more the club coaches can improve the Indian players, the better the national team will be.”
Twelve teams will battle for the title this year, with Punjab FC as the latest entrant in the ISL, as the I-League 2022-23 champions. Six teams have won the title in the past, with three for Atlético de Kolkata (ATK), two for Chennaiyin, one each for Bengaluru FC, Mumbai City FC, Hyderabad FC and ATK Mohun Bagan, the 2022-23 winners. Unlike more established leagues of Europe, where a few teams dominate, the ISL provides a level playing field.
“It’s the first time we have coaches who have won trophies—ISL, Super Cup, Federation Cup etc. That’s good for the ISL to have so many champion coaches,” said Carles Cuadrat, coach of East Bengal FC.
“The beauty of the ISL is that anyone can beat anyone,” said Kerala FC’s head coach Ivan Vukomanovic, who will miss the first four matches of this season due to a suspension. “A team can come from nowhere and get 10-11 wins in a row. It’s not about winning the beautiful game; it’s about collecting points.”
In a continuing game of musical chairs among coaches, Sergio Lobera will coach Odisha FC, after previously working with FC Goa and Mumbai City. Coyle returns to Chennaiyin FC after leading Jamshedpur FC to the ISL League Winners Shield in 2021-22. Cuadrat, who had led Bengaluru to the ISL title in 2018-19, heads East Bengal this season. Manolo Marquez, who led Hyderabad to their only title in 2021-22, has moved to FC Goa. Hyderabad FC now have Irishman Conor Nestor to help head coach Thangboi Singto while Northeast United FC roped in another Spaniard Juan Pedro Benali as head coach.
“Our first match is against Mumbai City. I don’t look beyond that, the first game,” Benali said. “It’s criminal not to dream (of winning the title). But we don’t think about semis or the finals—we just go for it.”
“The target is to see every game as a final—like there is no other game. The most important game of your career is the next game,” said Staikos Vergetis, the Punjab FC coach.
The new season has had a bit of a rocky start with the ISL schedule clashing with the Asian Games, which begins 23 September but some disciplines, including football, starting on 19 September. In a series of poorly managed and communicated set of events, including reports that some ISL teams were reluctant to release players for the Asian Games, the match between Hyderabad FC and FC Goa on 22 September got postponed last week.
“It’s a bit of a messy year with the number of competitions for the Indian team,” said Bengaluru FC coach Simon Grayson. “But we have to manage. We have six players in the national team, which we have to deal with.”
In the run up to the ISL, Mohun Bagan won the Durand Cup beating East Bengal FC in the final earlier this month, their first Derby win over their traditional rivals since 2019. The Bengal Derby is one of the league’s biggest matches. Official figures put 62,542 as the number of people who attended the Derby in November last year though the then East Bengal FC coach Stephen Constantine believed it was much more.
“Big clubs have big galleries with trophies. Derbies are important to win. But I would rather lose that match but win the trophy. A match is one, a trophy is for history,” said Bagan coach Juan Ferrando.
If the stated intention of the ISL is to improve the quality of Indian football, all coaches are in sync with it. “My aim is to make ISL the best in Asia. You have all the performers, you just have to bring them together,” said NEU’s Benali.
“I feel, as foreign coaches come into the country, we have an obligation by our clubs, obviously, but we also have an obligation to help develop young Indian players,” added Coyle.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), over a decade and a half ago, started a trend of sporting leagues that’s spread across disciplines, including the latest of arm-wrestling. But the ISL is only the second one to complete a decade, even though it trumps the IPL by running for over six months. One of the attractions of the ISL is the number of young Indian players who come through the ranks.
“For those that are just starting their journey, like young (19-year-old) Franklin (Nazareth), he’s going to have 10-15 years of this as a starting point. The fruition of that is going to be massive. So it puts him in a good position and hopefully, in 7-8-9-10 years we’ll be able to see the real benefit of that,” added Buckingham. Mumbai FC will also play the AFC Champions League against, among others, Saudi side Al Hilal that has Brazilian star Neymar in its squad.
The latest 2023-24 season of the ISL would the first to be telecast not by Disney Star but by Viacom18. The former did not renew the rights of the league after the 2022-23 season due to persistent losses and declining viewership, Mint reported earlier this month. Reliance Industries Ltd. owns 65% in Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL), which organizes the ISL, while the remaining 35% is with Disney Star.
The average attendance at matches across 11 grounds last season, according to football statistics and news website Transfermarkt, was just above 40% of the total capacity—an average of about 12,000 people per match. It was down from an average of 25,500 in 2013-14, the first season, when many marquee global stars at the end of their playing careers participated in the ISL. But television and digital reach tells a different story as, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), the ISL reached a record number of 130 million in the 2021 season, bettering the previous seasons in ratings.
“I think there’s a trend that people will follow winning teams (in stadiums). It’s like mostly you’ll have your hardcore supporters. Then you’ll have the ones that are the ‘good feeling’ ones,” said Coyle.
“I don’t like to compare seasons or players,” said Lobera. “Every year is different but this will be the most difficult ISL.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.