Predictability is one of the lesser liked qualities in football. But that is something Indian football fans don’t need to worry about. The Indian Super League (ISL), the country’s top tier football league, has developed into a wonderfully unpredictable competition where anything can happen, any team can win, any team can finish top and any bottom. There is no guessing winners and losers in the ISL, and it is that trait which has added momentum to its eighth season, which kicks off on 19 November.
Last season’s league was decided on the final matchday, with Mumbai City FC edging past ATK Mohun Bagan to win the shield due to a better head-to-head record against the Kolkata side, after both teams had finished on 40 points from 20 games. Mumbai then beat the same side (in the playoff finals) to win the ISL trophy as well in a memorable double for the now City Football Group owned team. Big names like Bengaluru FC, East Bengal, Chennaiyin, and Kerala Blasters all finished in the bottom half. Hyderabad, which came in 5th, played impressive football, but the story of the season was NorthEast United reaching only their second ever playoffs with a stunning 3rd-place finish under Indian head coach Khalid Jamil.
New coaches, new styles: The intricacies in the ISL, even with 11 clubs, can be very intriguing. While there are the obvious Kolkata derbies to look forward to, it will also be interesting to see what southern sides Kerala Blasters, Bengaluru, and two-time champions Chennaiyin can do this season. NorthEast go into the campaign with an Indian head coach in charge, a first for the ISL.
Five coaches have been retained for a second season running, but there are six new coaches too. Of these, Marco Pezzaiuoli at Bengaluru is a signing that sees The Blues shift from a Spanish setup (under Alberto Roca, and later Carles Cuadrat). Pezzaiuoli has coached Germany’s U15, U16, U17, and U18 teams and was also technical director at German club Eintracht Frankfurt. His first task will be to make Bengaluru play a more expansive style of football, while returning them to their gritty best.
But there is still enough Spanish influence elsewhere in the ISL. New coaches Kiko Ramirez (Odisha FC) and Manolo Diaz (SC East Bengal) are both Spaniards, with the latter having worked with Real Madrid’s youth teams. The teams finished 11th and 9th respectively last season respectively and will need a turnaround in fortunes this time. Hyderabad have also retained Manuel Roca, who inspired the side to play a brand of fast attacking football last season. Hyderabad had missed out on a top-four position by just two points.
Chennaiyin’s Montenegrin coach Bozidar Bandovic has the task of taking the club back into the top four mix but is generating excitement with his experience of working in Asia. “Bandovic ticks all the boxes: working with players in Asia, developing talent, and judging from pre-season they seem to be very organised and tough to beat. It is that quality that will hopefully rub off on the Indian players, which they can then take to the national team as well,” says ISL pundit Pradhyum Reddy.
Defending champions Mumbai City also have a new coach in Des Buckingham, who is just 36-years-old and joins from the Australian A-League side Melbourne City. It will be intriguing to see how the young Englishman fares as he is tasked with taking over from Sergio Lobera.
New rules in the ISL mean that there can only be a maximum of four foreign players on the pitch. That means the remaining seven players must be Indian. It is also compulsory for clubs to register at least one player from an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) country in their squad. This is in line with the rules which are implemented in the AFC Cup and AFC Champions League, the continent’s premier club competitions. The league winners qualify for the AFC Champions League and the playoff winners get an AFC Cup spot.
Indian players to follow this season: Last season was lit up by the likes of NorthEast United’s Lalengmawia (Apuia), who joined Mumbai City in one of the biggest transfers of the season. ATK Mohun Bagan snapped up Liston Colaco from Hyderabad FC and goalkeeper Amrinder Singh from Mumbai City, and will continue to offer ample playing time to swashbuckling forward Manvir Singh. A lot of youngsters: Suresh Singh (Bengaluru), Mohammed Yasir (Hyderabad), and Ishan Pandita (Jamshedpur) will come into the season on the back of being picked for the national team, and now is the time for them to go from young future stars to established first-team names on the lineup.
While FC Goa’s Mohammed Nemil is not fit to start the season, there is hope that he might eventually get playing time and continue his magical performances from the Durand Cup which the Goans won in October. Chennaiyin’s Anirudh Thapa will be moving into his peak years and will be gunning for a better season this time around.
The emotional return of highly-rated centre-back Anwar Ali to top-tier action is also something to look forward to. The 21-year-old has battled a heart condition to get clearance to play professionally and will turn out for FC Goa, and Indian football fans will hope he can fulfill his potential.
The big names from abroad: Even though some of them might have swapped clubs, the ISL’s foreign stars will be seen in action in India for another season. Roy Krishna will be joined at ATK Mohun Bagan by Hugo Boumous after his move from Mumbai City in the off-season. Bart Ogbeche also left the Islanders for Hyderabad, but NorthEast United have done brilliantly to retain Federico Gallego. Similarly, Chennaiyin FC will once again be able to call upon the creative spark of Rafael Crivallero. Mumbai City have signed last season’s Golden Boot winner Igor Angulo from FC Goa, but the Gaurs have replaced him with Airam Cabrera, and usually Goa always get it right when it comes to replacing strikers.
But the new foreigners are also exciting players. Greg Stewart will play for Jamshedpur after his title-winning season with Rangers in Scotland and Daniel Chima Chukwu joins East Bengal with a record of scoring 91 goals and creating another 44 goals in 262 career games. Kerala Blasters might look top-heavy, but in Alvaro Vazquez—who has plied his trade across Spain—and Argentine Jorge Pereyra Diaz the team has a fearsome strike pairing. Another signing generating a lot of excitement is Odisha’s Jonathas de Jesus. The Brazilian has scored goals in Germany, Russia, and Spain among other countries. And it’s not just about the forwards. Jamshedpur’s Peter Hartley is among those who will play a second straight season, and 25-year-old Croatian Franjo Prce will turn out for East Bengal. Kerala Blasters have also strengthened in this area, with the signing of Marko Leskovic, who has five seasons for Dinamo Zagreb on his CV.
Some might say last season's grandstand league finish will be hard to top, but ISL 2021-22 has so many teams, coaches, and players with so much to prove that it promises to be another journey of great stories and vivid memories. After all, this is football, the sport that almost never disappoints.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.