The fourth edition of Indian Super League has just come to an end. It, like the previous editions, did throw forward some bitter truths about Indian Football. The faster we accept them, the better it will be for Indian Football.
The most striking change in the mindsets of the franchises is that they understood the fallacy of bringing a famous retired player almost touching 40 to the league. When done in the initial years- the likes of Del Piero, Roberto Carlos, Juan Capdevila, Nicholas Anelka and many more- there has never been a doubt in the experience and star status they bring to Indian football, but how much value they added to the development of Indian Football? Apart from the minutes they put in the field, how much their experience was leveraged by our franchises? And to say it the other way round, is Indian Football capable to extract the depths of experiences of these legends of the game?
This year the franchises seems to have a tacit realization of this fact. Apart from Dimitar Berbatov (of Kerela Blasters), there is no other big name in the league. What interests me is that the franchises have moved towards assimilating players who are at maximum early thirties and can contribute a lot more in team building. And being an amateur football player, I believe that is the best way to imbibe the foreign traits and professionalism in Indian football. The likes of Miku (aged 32 of Bengaluru FC) or Ryan Taylor (aged 33 of ATK) brings in the required experience of La Liga or English Premier League and at the same time have contributed a lot more to team building than players who have already passed their twilight.
And when we speak of impact of ISL, there is another thing that may miss our eye. Over the 20th Century, Indian football had developed in few pockets in India. While Bengal has undoubtedly been the hub of National Football, places like Kerala, Goa and Punjab have had a strong presence of football. Of late North-East and Sikkim has of late turned into a prominent footballing destination. In this context, what ISL had done is it has spread football through out Indian subcontinent. It rightly adopted the franchise-based model (which has already proved successful in Indian Premier League) and helped to consolidate a fan base through out India.
But here again the gimmick will not suffice in Bengal. Clubs like East Bengal and Mohan Bagan cannot be left out of the show. ATK will never be able to develop a strong base in recent times in Kolkata because in all probability a Bengal football enthusiast is either an East Bengal or a Mohan Bagan or a Mohammedan Sporting fan. And it is imperative for ISL to leverage this fan base in Bengal and primarily in Kolkata. And in hindsight, these legacy clubs will need to be professional in their approach to the game or they will slowly decay to death. There seems to be a roadblock of how to assimilate these legacy clubs into ISL while at the same time make sure, if assimilated, how to manage the fixtures of ATK, East Bengal and Mohan Bagan in Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Stadium alone. At best let us keep our finger crossed and hope for a real quick but effective solution. And why not? Who does not want to see a Bengal Derby in ISL?
There is one more stronger reason to be skeptical of future of ISL. For the first three seasons, ISL was organized without the official recognition of Asian Football Federation. AFC has opposed to make ISL the primary league of the country – a status which still holds. In fact, ISL winner gets a place for AFC Cup while it is I-League winner who gets a chance to AFC Champions League. In this present status quo, both ISL and I-League are recognized as national leagues of India where on paper I-League has the higher status. It is imperative for AIFF to sought the way it needs to take both these leagues forward. Indian football does need a completely new and professional setup but not at the expense of the home-grown clubs which has passionately played the game for decades. They held on to football in spite all their lacuna, and AIFF needs to use the opportunities that ISL and I-League will present to pull these financially plagued and professionally staved clubs out of their slow dilapidation.
But having said all these, the future prospects of Indian football do look better than it was a decade earlier. With the infusion of esteem through the FIFA U-17 would cup, setting up of development infrastructures, and the proposed merger of ISL Franchises with big legacy football clubs in India there has been a new hope among Indian football fraternity. There has been a considerable rise of urban fan base who have grown watching foreign leagues and it is these people who brings a different taste to traditional Indian football galleries. The first experimental Super Cup is coming up where the top four ISL Teams and top four I-League teams compete. This will provide an interaction of neo-professional football setup of India and the emotionally driven legacy clubs of Indian football. It will present a huge onus on the teams on both sides of the coin. And specially clubs like East Bengal (97 years old) and Mohan Bagan (128 years old) to prove that ‘Old is Gold’.