After a spring of hope and a summer of despair, Indian football is looking to reset and restart with the Indian Super League (ISL), which begins on 7 October.
In the last few months, India made the cut for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup with a perfect 3-0 record in the third round of qualifiers, and Mumbai City FC became the first Indian club to register wins in the AFC Champions League. Meanwhile, the All India Football Federation was briefly banned by world governing body Fifa for ‘flagrant violations’ of statutes. Only last week, the Indian team, ranked 104 in the world, went down 0-3 to 97-ranked Vietnam in an international friendly.
But India’s marquee league, with the best Indian talent on show and the fans back in the stands, may provide a much-needed impetus. This ISL will open with a clash between Kerala Blasters and East Bengal at Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which regularly attracts a capacity crowd of 40,000.
“It is good to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said former Bengaluru FC assistant coach and current Dempo SC CEO Pradhyum Reddy. “It was a tough summer. If the ban had continued, at one point we were looking at the possibility of no foreigners and that would have taken a lot of sheen off the league. It is a good way of showing things are back to normal and moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.”
This is the first time in three years that the ISL will be played in front of fans. The pandemic forced the last two editions to be held inside a bio-bubble. The 2021-22 season was especially tough on the players mentally as there was a COVID outbreak in the bubble in January. The schedule had to be changed, survival became the byword.
“Only if you’re in the bubble, will you know how hard and frustrating this is,” India and Bengaluru FC talisman Sunil Chhetri had written in a long, compassionate social media post in January. “To get through this is not something you can train for. It has nothing to do with skill, talent or experience. This is up there on the list of sacrifices we’re making, to be able to play the game we love. It’s a battle we’re all fighting in our ways.”
Bengaluru FC have been one of the most consistent teams in the Indian domestic scene; the club was established in 2013. They visibly struggled to cope without the support of their fans in the last two seasons. ISL champions in 2018-19, Bengaluru finished seventh in 2020-21 and sixth in 2021-22.
Last season, Hyderabad FC, a team greater than the sum of its parts, clinched the ISL trophy as they beat Kerala Blasters on penalties in the final. Meanwhile, Jamshedpur FC, one of the newer teams on the ISL roster, won the League Shield (topped the standings after the league stage).
ISL is set to welcome back fans and the home-and-away format with this edition. They have also introduced a few changes: the matchweek will be held from Thursday to Sunday and six teams will qualify for the playoffs rather than the usual four. While the top two teams will gain direct entry into the semi-finals the other four will compete for the remaining two spots.
Evolution of the league
Since it was launched with much fanfare in 2014, the ISL has evolved into a different beast. Having started as a two-month affair, the League now runs for more than five months. After the big splash in the opening season, when they brought in players like Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Marco Materazzi, Luis Garcia and Freddie Ljungberg, the ISL has done away with the concept of marquee signings.
“More than big names, coaches and management are now looking for foreigners who can play, run more,” said Renedy Singh, former I-League and India star who has played in the ISL before and was the stand-in coach for East Bengal late last season.
“For the last few years, we have seen younger players coming in, not ones who are close to retirement and in their mid-30s. The intensity of the game has increased. The number of foreign players allowed has shrunk from six to five, five to four, giving Indian players more opportunities.”
The ISL, however, has its detractors. In June this year, the national coach of the Indian men’s team, Igor Stimac, described the league as ‘comfort football.’ Fair or not, from the outside, results like India’s defeat to Vietnam don’t reflect well on the big-money league which has inherited the I-League’s tendency to slot foreigners into attacking positions. The net result is that Chhetri, at 38, remains India’s best striker.
“The level of football is not going down, it is going up. It’s just that we are going at a very slow pace,” adds Singh. “The players are now more tactically aware. The training they are getting is far superior. Physically, they are stronger now. But technically we still have a long way to go.”
Strong on paper
Eleven teams will compete for the ISL trophy this season. Manolo Marquez’s young Hyderabad FC squad was the surprise winner in 2021-22, but with a lot of the key players moving out, they might find it difficult to repeat the feat. For the record, no team has defended their ISL title so far.
The official curtain raiser of the Indian domestic season was the Durand Cup. And though some of the ISL clubs did not bring their full squads, it was a fair indicator of how teams were shaping up for the challenge ahead. The two finalists Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City FC were also the ones who made the most noteworthy signings.
Former champions Mumbai, with Des Buckingham at the helm, roped in Greg Stewart, who made a splash on his debut in India with Jamshedpur FC last season. The former Rangers player, who won the Scottish Premiership in 2020-21 with Steven Gerrard as coach, scored 10 goals and 10 assists last season to bag the ‘Hero of the League’ trophy. The attacking midfielder seamlessly transitioned into the Mumbai set-up and guided them to the Durand Cup final. Winger Lallianzuala Chhangte, who finished as top-scorer with seven goals, also looked sharper and more menacing.
After two sluggish seasons, Bengaluru FC seem geared for a revival under new coach Simon Grayson, who has led four clubs to promotion in English football. Two of the biggest positives for Bengaluru, apart from ending their trophy drought at the Durand Cup, was the Roy Krishna-Chhetri partnership and the emergence of young striker Sivasakthi Narayanan. Apart from Fijian ace Krishna, Bengaluru have also signed Spain’s Javi Hernandez and India defender Sandesh Jhingan. Having won the Cup, which saw Chhetri complete the full set of Indian domestic titles, they are bubbling with confidence.
As is usual for young tournaments like ISL, there have been a lot of personnel changes. Seven of the 11 teams will have a new head coach. Former champions Chennaiyin FC, who have hired German coach Thomas Brdaric, and have made 18 new signings.
While the search for the next big thing in Indian football continues, the biggest prize in Indian football will be up for grabs, starting this Friday.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai